The Ivory Tower

Alignment languages: an artifact of a previous era, based on nonsensical notions cobbled together through a handful of literary sources (and not very good ones at that).

And yet…

The way Noisms puts it, I’m tempted to dive in. Personally, I believe that good/evil, right/wrong, and so on, are very real things. Objectively real. If all people in this world were to disappear overnight, the concepts of ethics and morality would persist. I admit that I can’t prove that they exist, though I can offer examples ~ which is part of the reason that I like the idea of alignment (or any morality system in an RPG). I also believe in demons and angels, I can’t prove their existence, and I get to experience their reality (to some degree) by playing the game.

What I’ve come to understand about morality systems, and especially about alignment, is that they are diametrically opposed to a core concept in RPGs: that the players are free agents in the world. A PC might be a vassal, he might have friends and enemies, and he might make choices that have consequences in the game. But these things work because there’s an understanding between the player and the DM: that when the duke puts out a reward for the PC’s head on a spike, it’s because the PC did something deserving and the duke is not the DM. The duke is an active, real entity in the game. This is why it’s so difficult to claim that something bad happening is the result of a god ~ for, although the deity is similar to an NPC, their sheer power puts them on a level closer to the DM than the duke, and the player knows this. If a deity forces a PC to perform a quest, it’s not the act of an independent agent in the world, it’s the DM who’s responsible. Alignment is even more closely associated with the DM because she’s the one who has to judge whether a given action falls within a given alignment.

This is the problem I have with philosophy in general: it’s very challenging and great fun to engage in high-level thinking about life, the universe and everything, but unless there’s a real connection to this world, something that we can grasp and understand, then it’s ultimately useless drivel (at best) and borderline fascism (at worst) (because that’s what alignment is, in regard to running the game: a philosophical position on how people think and act).

Consider another philosophical position: mass data gathering is wrong. It’s a violation of basic freedoms. It’s dangerous because knowledge is power and people can use that knowledge (power) to effect dramatic changes in our world. Facebook gathers data on all its users, giving them amazing power to effect change. Yet we let them do it; we know they’re gathering data; we don’t care because we like the service they offer us. We don’t see this data gathering as affecting us beyond a bunch of ads for products that we kind of, sort of, might want to use. And we do. We click the links, we browse the sites, we play the games, and we amuse ourselves. And in return, Facebook gets our information and third-party content providers get hits on their sites and all this activity is stored in a giant vault, accessible to an army of analysts and economists and whoever pays the right price to the right people.

So where does this go from a harmless philosophical position ~ data gathering is bad, m’kay, and Facebook should stop doing it ~ to having a real impact in our world?

The 2016 American presidential election. Access to Facebook’s information about the public helped the Republican party elect Donald Trump. This is not a conspiracy. This is a thing that happened. And it will continue to happen. Knowledge is power, and in this case the knowledge is how you (not as an individual but as a member of a number of different groups) think and act. And it was used to shape the public conversations during the election; to present Trump in a certain light; to direct issues, to deflect accusations, to create an image that was palatable to just enough people that Trump could win the election. And it worked.

Before it was a philosophical position ~ data gathering gives people power and that power is a bit frightening ~ but nothing came of it. For quite some time, nothing really big happened as a direct result of knowing all these details about people. Now something has happened. Now the world has changed a little bit and we can draw a direct association between that change and the philosophical position. We have a concrete example that validates the paradigm.

Where is that example with regard to D&D’s alignment system? Why is it that we can’t point to a practical instance where alignment has demonstrated its worth?


One thought on “The Ivory Tower

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  1. The usual hand-waving explanation I usually see for alignment languages refers to the Black Speech of Mordor; that seems like a decent place to start, but most discussion just stops there and says “Alignment languages are like that.” (I have a couple other thoughts, but those are more appropriate to post on noism’s original post.)

    And I actively avoid most social media whenever possible, since mass data collection creeps me out. I’ve had some mild anxiety over even revealing this little sliver of my personality to complete strangers, but so far the conversations and exchange of ideas have been worth whatever data that Google and WordPress have collected from these (relatively infrequent) pieces of text.

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