While I have previously on numerous occasions taken time to disparage Dungeons and Dragons and its consequent effects on Roleplaying, its fall into subversion and liberalism remains an entertaining case study. The effects of this fall have given rise to discussions on the appropriate use of the term race (of course ignoring classical definitions), the use of feudal trappings, and of course, D&D’s most famous mechanic after the critical hit; the alignment chart. I am entirely certain that most anyone reading this has some idea of the alignment system. However, its mechanics and implications have not remained stagnant in D&D’s history and its changes reflect the ideological subversion of what was originally a very interesting albeit niche metaphysical thought experiment.
Alignment as originally envisioned by Gary Gygax (whose legacy on tabletop games is mixed to say the least) totalistically encompassed the entirety of metaphysics and spirituality within Dungeons and Dragons. Action emerged from alignment, as alignment was an intrinsic quality, incapable of being changed. Alignment was furthermore linked to races, their tendencies intrinsically forcing them into an alignment, creating a physical manifestation of a spiritual hierarchy of order, chaos, good, and evil. Alignments even further manifested themselves as planes (alternate dimensions) and afterlives, locked in spiritual battle for dominance. Someone’s existence within an alignment therefore gave them a political, spiritual, and religious worldview as even the gods within this system where aligned.
Many readers are certainly noting the immense similarities of this system to traditionalist modes of thought, either of the Evolian or the Feudal variety. Certainly, these are not identical, but the intrinsic rigidity of the overarching status of the individual within the system is of note. And the similarities shouldn’t surprise anyone, the framers of the Alignment system drew their world’s metaphysics from Tolkien and those inspired by him, the legacy of feudal thought echoing through the aprioristic moral firmament of their work. In a sense they drew deep into a tradition they didn’t quite understand, nor know they were interacting with, as it was so deeply imparted into the cultural literature immersing them. The originators of D&D never truly knew the magnitude of what they would make, nor how their original morality system had dealt so deeply with western culture.
Given that these alignments as essentially “ethno-spiritual-political teams” the allowed actions within an alignment were quiet broad. Gygax himself endorsed Lawful Good characters killing children based on the implications of their racial categories, and even justified it with pre-modern cultural examples. (insert gygax on alignment from email)
This understanding of reality is anathema to liberalism, and so as D&D became more corporate (and as Gygax himself attempted to appeal to corporate interests even as early as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons), D&D’s rhetoric about a myriad of topics (morality, race, sexes to name a few) began to shift. Gygax himself put the first aside about inclusion and equality in RPG history in the preface of AD&D after all (I personally have theories as to why, but perhaps that will wait for a later post). So, we began to see D&D’s explicit literary roots become implicit as its pseudo-medievalist outlook needed to be subsumed to mass marketability.
While I could walk us through the long and winding path of D&D’s history as a product (a quite boring one to anyone who has little investment in the old system), it is most illustrative to contrast this understanding of metaphysics with the understanding now advocated by the successors of the original D&D. Where originally alignment was intrinsic and largely based on heritage, new alignment primarily emerged from character action, players chose alignments based on how they thought their character would act. Dungeon Masters now would arbitrarily change player’s alignments based on their actions, as alignment became less fluid. To use a modern metaphor, the difference essentially was of a similar tenor to my being a Lutheran because my parents are Lutherans and most of my family were Lutherans in the past compared to the phenomenon of Twitter trads shopping for religion based on theological nitpicking, trappings, and who appears the most based.
Naturally fictional characters fleshing out the setting reflected this understanding as well, Drizzt is a good drow who struggles against his evil race who would go on to inspire a bunch of exception to the rule character. Of course, this trend continued and now a Dungeons and Dragons player who thinks of alignment as anything more than just an easy moral descriptor can scarcely be found. As this understanding cemented itself further, alignment became another portion of a special snowflake character’s battery of super cool and unique traits that separate them from everyone else. Alignment went from an intrinsic trait to as superficial as a character’s eye color.
This of course naturally follows from liberalism’s central premise. Individual wants come above any collective or group. Immutable characteristics and associated stereotypes/group associated activities therefore pose an obstacle and impediment to freedom. The alignment therefore cannot be a characteristic immutable to race or even a transcendent category/ideology to be forwarded. After all, metaphysics based on subjugating others to one’s own moral view and religion are anathema to liberalism, at least in theory (it is worth noting that Liberalism seeks to subjugate others more so than any other ideology, it merely pretends not to). So, it follows that a liberal would consequently need to morph such a system to meet liberal priors.
Therefore, the system of alignment would necessarily morph into a system based on choice. The previously mentioned flippancy with which modern D20 RPGs treat alignment should be expected. Just like the medievalism it was set in, all forms of deeper ideology, spirituality, and expression must be subsumed to liberalism, merely serving as trappings for it. Lawful good characters now within common conception could never hurt a child, even if it were from a “evil race” because there are always exceptions, losing its legalistic Dura Lex Sed Lex distinction from other good alignments much the way any distinction between liberal Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics has been boiled down to mere name and trappings.
Nowadays, any interesting value the early primitive forms of D&D had in exploring the myriad of medievalist and pseudo-traditional influences on their rules and settings has been lost to Liberalism with Lords and Ladies, a magical cleaned middle ages devoid of any nasty hierarchy, superstition, and transcendent virtue.