Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Alignment, Civilization, and Barbarism

Rambling about Alignment.

The idea that the Law-Chaos spectrum in D&D alignment represents the struggle between civilization and barbarism is not new.  That representation makes good sense, especially for a campaign set on the 'borderlands' or frontier, where those two forces meet.  It's a vibe I wanted to explore with Wampus Country - pushing civilization outward into the (presumably chaotic) wilderness, or dealing with frontier characters who strike a tenuous balance between the two.  The frontiersman is too civilized not to leave his mark on the wilderness, but too wild to be comfortable (or perhaps even accepted) in "civilized" society.

Of course, Wampus Country has some additional behavioral concerns that may not turn up very often in most people's games; whether these are alignment-related is a parallel question.  What is it to be "civilized" in Wampus Country?  It's not about cities and established laws or any of that.  It's about how you treat people - and 'people' may have its own definition as well.

If it thinks and talks, it's probably a person.  If it's polite and hospitable, it's probably civilized.

This is not a great philosophical leap.  When you stumble across a swamp-ogre that tries to eat your face, it's obviously barbaric (and, ergo, a guilt-free target for your revolver if you are of Lawful alignment).  If you meet a walking, talking tiger on the road (complete with top hat), he may offer you tea.  He's civilized - or at least pretending to be so.

Some examples from play:

The devil-fairies that pop out of invisibility behind your back and try to shank you?  Barbaric.

The cupcake fairy who pops out of invisibility at parley distance and demands you explain yourselves or leave, lest there be unpleasantness?  Pretty civilized, if you ask me.

The savage poggles who tried to stab adventurers while they slept?  Barbaric.

Hexley, Lord Chuffington, the tuxedoed 'snobgoblin' who claims to be trying to better the lives of his goblinoid brethren through education and employment?  Civilized.  But still suspicious.

Civilized people keep armed conflict as a last resort.  Barbaric people are happy to bash heads if they have the advantage, without announcing themselves.  Does 'Lawful' map to 'Civilized' and 'Chaotic' to Barbaric every darn time in Wampus Country?  Sure seems that way, most of the time.  Now, that doesn't mean folks won't lie, or pretend to be what they aren't, or have complex motivations that skew their behavior.  But it lines up pretty well.

Especially when we consider that a lot of frontier humans - to include the majority of the adventurers I've seen - are Neutral.  "Somewhere in between".

Shifty, the lot of 'em.  Real gentlemen bastards.  Nominally civilized people doing uncivilized things for possibly-civilized goals.  What a mess!

"Look, I know he's disgustingly creepy and exoskeletal and twenty feet long, but he offered us scones and we ate them.  We ate the goddamn scones, Billy.  We can't just kill him now, it wouldn't be right."


  1. Where does yanking the pants down on an undead monstrosity fall on the morality scale?

  2. That guy was obviously uncivilized. Forget about the 'ghoul' and 'highwayman' part, the plaid in his suit was ridiculously loud.

  3. And what's wrong with plaid then laddie?

    Aye, right. That was a loud plaid, no' a proper, handsome tartan.