Can I play a Lawful Thief?

Player characters in service to Law and Chaos, Good and Evil can be found since the late 1970’s tramping through musty dungeons filled with traps, treasures, and unlikely monsters, often in the same party.

Gary Gygax tossed in ideas from Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson, and every other fantasy writer of his generation, with no concern as to whether they mixed or matched.

This produced his alignment system, which amuses me, because it produces endless debate among players and moderators as to how the system is to be interpreted and enforced, far in excess of how often alignment actually tends to crop up in games.

It is not just that the terms are vague enough to allow for any degree of barracks-room lawyering whatsoever. Even if the terms were defined, the alignment concept is nonsensical, consisting of two parts which cannot be coordinated.

The Moorcockian idea of dividing morality into two opposing amoral forces of Law and Chaos, each one benevolent in moderation, evil only in the extreme, does not and cannot mix with the Manichaean idea of dividing morality into the moral forces of Good and Evil, one purely benevolent and the other purely malign.

(I call it Manichaean rather than Christian, because Christian lore makes the Devil a rebel servant, not an equal and opposite god, and Christian theology makes evil a deprivation or perversion of the good.)

Because the two parts of the framework are incompatible, this means the framework does not and cannot fit any given action, or be used to identify any particular moral principles.

Let me use the backstory of a character from a D&D game I played. My character was the last daughter of a noble house dishonored by scandal, as her grandfather accused of piracy, and of worshipping Lovecraftian sea gods. Her brother was summoned to the Forbidden City to vow fealty to the Emperor, which would have restored the family name. Alas, the brother was too ill to travel; but failure to appear would mean scandal and banishment and seppuku for all. So, taking a skill-level in disguise, the daughter dressed up like the brother, tucking her long hair into a big hat, and forging imperial papers and passports to allow her to travel under her brother’s name.

The moderator and I debated round and round as to what was her alignment.

She had no compunction about forging papers and telling lies and deceiving imperial inspectors, which is lawless, but she would not act against family honor by an inch, which is lawful. She was selflessly willing to risk death for the sake of her family honor, which is good, but was selfishly willing to commit any crime needed to keep the secret intact, which is evil.

I think the moderator eventually decided she was a lawful chaotic ungood antineutrino or something. I do not recall, because frankly it never came up. This moderator was not the kind of guy who would make you lose a level of experience because your character performed too many heroic acts to maintain your strict standard of true neutrality.

Nor did this moderator have a magic ray-screen through which only characters of the proper moral alignment could pass to enter Galt’s Gulch: that magic realm where only selfish but law-abiding acts that are good while being on strike against the world are allowed! Except that high-tech Danish pirates may raid shipping to recover unjustly gathered tax moneys being shipped to socialist welfare-kingdoms overseas, and return it to industrial magnates. (Really not sure which alignment a principled Objectivist would be, either. Lawful Selfish?)

I realize that this three-by-three matrix did not exist in the first edition, back when AD&D was yet D&D, and that in a later editions it was simplified, and then, later still, unsimplified, and that the debate continues.

I expect this tinkering can never find rest, because the alignment system is attempting to satisfy two antithetical ideals, namely, to run a game mimicking the moral stature of high fantasy in which anyone can play any sort of character he fancies.

Here, for the record, is the description in the long-lost 3rd Edition of the manual:

Law implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness [sic], and a lack of adaptability.

Chaos implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.

Someone who is neutral with respect to law and chaos has a normal respect for authority and feels neither a compulsion to follow rules nor a compulsion to rebel. He is honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits him.

Good implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.

Evil implies harming, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or if it can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some malevolent deity or master.

People who are neutral with respect to good and evil have compunctions against killing the innocent but lack the commitment to make sacrifices to protect or help others. Neutral people are committed to others by personal relationships.

Note, please, that the writer here is alert enough to maintain the central point of Moorcock’s pagan conceit: that there is no good nor evil in life, only a balance between forces that, when taken to an extreme, are equally destructive. The virtue of chaos, freedom, is distinguished from its evil extreme irresponsibility; the virtue of law, order, is distinguished from its evil extreme, conservativism, er, excuse me, I mean reactionary traditionalist mumble mumble.

Unhelpfully enough, the neutral position, if there is one, is merely not to suffer any compulsion to obey nor to rebel. Which means one rebels or obeys by one’s own free and unrestricted choice, or whim, which sounds like the Chaos alignment.

The stance of one of nonchalance, not a principled adherence (if such a thing can be imagined) to neutrality. There is no hint of any hierarchy of thought, where a lawful order is worthy of obedience but an arbitrary tyrant is not. Neither is there any hint of Taoism or Eudaemonism, or any other philosophy preaching moderation between extremes.

Good and evil are a bit easier to grasp: good sacrifices himself to help others, and evil kills and harms and otherwise sacrifices others to help himself.

Neutral, once again, is not described as any sort of principle of Objectivism, to live without sacrifice of self nor other, nor a principle of Pragmatism or Consequentialism, but merely a lack of compunction or commitment.

This gives us three flavors of neutrality: the amoral who does not care about good and evil, and the apolitical who does not care about law or anarchy. The third is whatever one might call a man (or sociopath) who cares about neither, but how he can be anything other than arbitrary and flexible hence chaotic, I cannot see.

So, at first glance, the three-by-three matrix seems to cover all the bases: Lawful good is a policemen; Chaotic good is a vigilante; Neutral good serves on the posse when deputized.

Lawful neutral is a robotic bureaucrat, who obeys laws both just and unjust, out of blind devotion to obedience; Chaotic neutral is a riot-happy hippy student, who disobeys laws both just and unjust, out of blind hatred of authority and a lust for eternal rebellion. How this differs from the pride of Lucifer and the ultimate of evil, I cannot see.

Lawful evil is a by-the-book Nazi in his snappy uniform; Chaotic evil is the Joker from Batman; Neutral evil — uh —

Hm. What in Hades is neutral evil?

By the description, a neutral evil man harms and oppresses and kills others but has a normal respect for authority, without feeling compelled to obey or defy it, and he can be tempted into lying and deception when it suits him. So he kills and harms but does not lie. Hm.

Logically, this character can only exist if and when he is under a lawful authority who tells him to harm and oppress and kill, and he generally obeys, but not when inconvenient. I am not sure who this could be, aside from a lax flunky to a Dark Lord, or a Commie soldier showing up drunk on parade, and grifting from the quartermaster, but gleefully grinding the faces of the proles on demand.

True neutral, by the same logic, is someone who has normal respect for authority, but who can be tempted to lie when it suits him, and who has compunction against killing the innocent, but lacks the compunction to sacrifice to help others. He is committed to others by personal relationships, meaning he will help his kith and kin, but not strangers.

Han Solo, or any loveable rogue, with a little work from the shoehorn, might fit this category, but this sounds like the type of person who does not go on adventures nor loot the tombs of lich-lords.

My opinion, if I may be so bold, is that the debate will always continue. It is structurally built into the bones of Gygax’s game that there never will be a right answer to the question of alignment.

One might be tempted to say this is because the alignment system is too simplistic: if Cromwell overthrows Charles I, is he chaotic, for having no respect for the kingship, or lawful for establishing a Puritan tyranny, complete with secret police? Is he evil, for doing these things in the name of God? Or is he good, for doing these things in the name of God?

But if the error were merely the simplicity, that could have been cured in later editions by adopting something like a simple moral hierarchy, saying when it was good for good alignments to break bad laws, but bad to break good ones, or saying how higher law could overrule lower, or whathaveyou. I submit there is a deeper problem involved.

D&D has a fundamentally different alignment system than those of games limited to a specific background. In a game like PENDRAGON, for example, or BUSHIDO, a given moral code or honor code is built into the rules. In a game like VAMPIRE THE MASQUERADE or CALL OF CTHULHU, certain specific acts or errors can erode the humanity or sanity of the character. The rules concerning the virtue, honor, soul and sanity of the characters are fitted to the specific genre and setting.

For example, suicide is rewarded in Bushido, if done properly, by allowing the player to carry his experience points over to his next reincarnation. In Pendragon, on the other hand, for a Christian knight to slay himself would be a hellish sin.

In these cases, the rules are set up to reward behavior suited to the setting.

The rules do not need to be flexible enough to allow a witch and a witch-finder to serve on the same team, or Shao Lin monk shoulder to shoulder with a Crusader in the Holy Land. These games are set to one genre, one setting, one mood, by design.

In DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, by way of contrast, Gary Gygax was attempting to throw all possible elements from any known fantasy background, from Homer to Mallory to Robert E. Howard, into a setting generic enough and generous enough that any moderator could adapt the rules to his particular campaign, no matter of what sort the campaign might be.

D&D was all things to all men.

You want to play a lawful good half-orc thief named Grabsneak son of Grub in the same party with a chaotic evil martial artist elf-princess named Kitsune-no-Yoma, her hulking true neutral northern barbarian dwarf named Humble Bragi, and a neutral lawful halfling knight from the grasslands of the horselords named Sir Bullroarer the Foolhardy? Join in!

It is pluralism. Let everyone play what he wants. It is the kitchen sink approach.

But the disadvantage of the kitchen sink approach involves admitting incompatible elements.

The first question is why have alignments at all? Most games do without.

Now the purpose of the alignment system is clear enough: Unlike in a Space Opera or Spy Thriller, in a High Fantasy setting, magic swords or rings or cups or boxes can have a moral quality.

And if you are not going to come across the Holy Grail or the One Ring, if all the magic is just a psychic technology, you might as well play a Space Opera or Spy Thriller.

The moral element is part of the fantasy element the players come to this game to get. That is why fairy tale heroes rescue a princess and not a senator’s daughter. That is what makes fighting goblins and ringwraiths, loathsome servants of the Dark Lord, different from fighting rum-runners and hill bandits.

Hence, the moderator has to make a judgment call concerning what happens when Boromir picks up the One Ring, when Mordred quaffs from the Holy Grail, or when Sturmbannführer Toht or Oberst Dietrich pry open the Ark of the Covenant.

Can the druid Allanon or the bumbling magician Schmendrick open the Necronomicon, to raise Charles Dexter Ward or Imhotep from the dead without losing his soul? Does losing your soul lower your saving throw?

In order to make that call not arbitrary, the player selects the moral tone of his character, his alignment, at gamestart.

Egregious behavior outside the bounds permitted, in some editions of the game, for the moderator to declare your alignment switched, and you may lose a level of EP; and, as every superhero fan knows, red kryptonite or the black spidersuit from outer space can change your alignment also.

While having good characters unable to open evil magic tomes, or evil characters unable to look into sacred magic mirrors fits nicely into the high fantasy mood of Medieval fairyland, the moral qualities of Elric of Melnibone or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser of Nehwon require something more pagan.

The moral vision behind Sword and Sorcery tales, as in Conan the Barbarian yarns, and the moral vision behind High Fantasy, as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Narnia series, simply do not fit one with the other.

Conan can be a hero of tales set in the Hyborian Age, because the moral code of that Age is that of cynical Film Noir, painted in shades of gray.

Far different is the Third Age, where the only shades of gray are in the fumes and stench of Mordor, and, far above, kindled by Elbereth, burns the evenstar, silvery and pure.

A scene where Conan is tempted by the One Ring, for example, would either be a farce or a tragedy. A writer attempting to pen such as scene must either betray the nature of our barbaric antihero; or must betray the nature of the ring.

Conan wanting the ring as booty to sell it for drinking money would be farcical. Conan feeling the lure of the ring, which tempts men to be kings, kings to be tyrants, and tyrants to corrupt the minds and souls of all his slaves, would be tragic.

If Conan treats the ring as merely one more Lovecraftian artifact of ancient evil, he trivializes it. If the ring can tempt Conan as it did Boromir, our barbarian loses the glamor of his primitive purity; but if it did not tempt him, as it did not Faramir or Bombadil, our barbarian loses the bloodthirsty glamor gained by his role as rogue, freebooter, and conquering king. Either way, the ring trivializes him.

Likewise, a scene where Aslan appears before Conan in a vision would of necessity undermine one of these two characters, making him seem weaker than he appears on his own home turf, or absurd, or tyrannical, or pathetic, or dull.

The One Ring comes from a wider, older, more serious world, which says evil is found in every soul. The Noble Savage springs from adolescent cynicism, which says civilization is corrupt and evil is their fault, not mine. It is a narrow world, profoundly unserious.

The Noble Savage is a false glamorization of the pagan best called Postmodernism. Conan is not Achilles, for hubris is not a sin to Conan. Pagan heroes pay for their greatness by being doomed to inescapable fate. Achilles, in Homer, is courteous and civil, not barbaric at all. He is merely nonchristian, and sees no need to pity the weak.

There is no way to give both the One Ring and the Noble Savage their due, since Postmodern and Christian live in different moral atmospheres.

In one, sin is not cool. In the other, it is.

Badass wicked behavior cannot be treated as a serious matter while being treated nonchalantly.

I submit that, like everything else in life, at its root, the question here comes down to religion: High Fantasy follows the mood and tropes of medieval tales and songs, where good versus evil is the crucial choice, and no one is allowed not to pick a side: attempting to stay neutral in the war against the Devil is no less the mortal sin of sloth, and places you on his side.

Galahad and Merlin and Aragorn we know where to place on the good-to-evil spectrum, and likewise Mordred and Morgan le Faye and Sauron. Their virtues are faith, hope and charity; their vices are treason, despair and hate.

However, portraying the morally ambiguous antiheroes like Conan and Elric and Corwin of Amber as the evil villains they are, as realistic as that may be, is something only a killjoy would contemplate, and may well spoil the fun of schoolboys playing a tabletop game where murder hobos kill goblins while looting archeological sites of priceless treasure.

Doomed Achilles, cunning Odysseus, and dragon-slaying Siegfried are pagan heroes from a prechristian world, coming from a more primitive strata of moral insight than a chivalrous Christian knight or pious cleric; and Elric and Conan are Nietzschean or Nihilistic glamorizations of pagan heroes from a postchristian era, coming from a layer of corruption accumulated across a once glorious civilization, and, naturally, these pulp figure are more simplistic and silly, without the melancholy majesty of real paganism. Postchristians do not understand the real virtues of the real men of old.

The classical pagan virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The ancients held each to form an happy medium between opposing vices. In adventure stories, however, usually only the fortitude of the character is tested.

It is rare, but not unknown, for an adventure to start with the hero failing in a test of his prudence, as he does the unwise thing he must then venture to undo; and, also rarely, at the end of the adventure, as the defeated villain begs for mercy, it is not unknown for the hero to practice justice. But, by and large, heroism is a matter of strength and courage and longsuffering called fortitude.

There is, please note, no neutrality in the pagan system. A lapse of fortitude is cowardice, and an excess is recklessness. Whether to be courageous, cowardly, or reckless is never a matter of nonchalance, and whether to obey or rebel against one’s lord is never a matter of whimsy or indifference.

It is not clear what, if anything, Michael Moorcock had in mind with his system that Gary Gygax adopted, but one could perhaps make the case that a lapse of justice was anarchy, the chaos of the lords of chaos, and the excess was tyranny, the draconian law of the lords of law.

But it might be easier, based on how they were portrayed in the books, to call Arioch and Xiomborg and Mabelode pagan devil-gods and leave it at that. Moorcock, being modern, and something of an anarchist himself, and wanted to glamorize Evil, and so he had to call it Chaos, implying that, unlike in real life, freedom and flexibility spring from a simple absence of law, rather than from the prudent and just use of the law, and the absence of folly and favoritism.

I note that the names of the Chaos Gods of Moorcock come easily to my pen, and his eight-armed emblem for chaos, a mockery of the Union Jack of his own country, is memorable, and can be seen in tattoo parlors, tee shirts, or the helmets of bikers. It is cool.

Only by straining can I recall the name of Donblas, a Lord of Law, or recall that his emblem is a single upright arrow, something like a traffic sign. Moorcock had no power to make these characters, or this concept, interesting.

Moorcock’s purpose and use was different from Gygax’s, obviously. This is why Arioch is not an Ayn Rand Libertarian, nor if Mabelode the Faceless anything like a Null-A trained Venusian Detective, able to live in utopian peace without law, nor can one imagine Xiomborg aiding Ben Franklin or Tom Paine, even though these men were both notorious rebels against the existing order.

Again, please note that in Moorcock, it is explicitly said that the balance between the two was the moral position, and that any extreme in either direction was bad for mankind.

Whereas in Gygax, there is no alignment for balanced versus unbalanced. The only intermediary position between the simplistic extremes of anarchy and tyranny is to be nonchalant about the issue, neither compelled to obey authority nor compelled to rebel. This is, if anything, the antithesis of balance. A balance measures two opposing forces against each other with careful judgment. Nonchalance judges nothing, care for nothing.

Be that as it may, the terms Law and Chaos are vague enough to get something of the amoral and antiheroic flavor of the badass yet nonjudgmental pagan characters that players want to play.

Nonjudgmentalism or pluralism is the core of the kitchen sink concept, where anyone can play whatever sort of character he wants.

The problem arises because Nonjudgmentalism has a single rule: everything can be tolerated but the intolerant. This, as one might expect, condemns only extremes, only persons who act on principle, and rewards only persons heading toward a bland and pragmatic neutrality on every issue.

But Nonjudgmentalism, when one inhabits a Christian universe, or any universe with an alignment of Good versus Evil, is itself an evil. If you are lukewarm, a Laodicean, the Lord with spew you from his mouth.

But being judgmental, when one inhabits a Postmodern universe, or any universe with an alignment that decries only extremes, and welcomes only toleration, is again an evil, the only evil that such a universe knows.

So the two axes of the Gygax alignment, one is moralistic, and judges good and evil, and the other is amoral, and judges mediums and extremes, and the two can never mix.

Nor can they intersect, because intersection of Law and Chaos, by the Moorcock conceit, is Balance, just as the intersection of Cowardice and Recklessness is Courage, or the intersection of Anarchy and Tyranny is Justice.

Whereas in Gygax, the intersection is merely where the Hamlets who cannot make up their mind wander as aimlessly as shadows in the realm of Hades or Limbo.

Here is the paradox: Having an alignment system allows for rules  to govern the treatment of artifacts whose nature is clearly good or evil, such as the One Ring, the Holy Grail, the Necronomicon, and the Ark of the Covenant, or creatures like unicorns or vampires, holy men or ringwraiths. Without such artifacts and monsters, the elevated mood and atmosphere of high fantasy is lost.

But if the moderator enforces a strict moral code, as one might see in a Superhero game, the cynical mood and atmosphere of sword and sorcery is lost.

If the moderator looses one mood or the other, the kitchen-sink appeal of allowing anyone to play anything is lost.

The Gygax alignment matrix is simple enough, flexible enough, to be easily understood and applied to nearly every situation in a rough and ready way, but juvenile enough and ambiguous enough never to be applied correctly.

So the arguments about it will never cease.