Thursday, August 05, 2010

Slavery, Alignment and Moral Relativism

Keeping slaves is not compatible with a good alignment, but doing so does not necessarily make a character evil. Most slave owners are unaligned. Overseers who treat their slaves brutally are definitely engaging in evil acts that should outrage good characters. The question is whether anything can reasonably be done about the situation. Given how commonplace slavery is on Athas, good characters can’t reasonably attempt to free every slave they meet, nor should they recklessly challenge slave owners who are too powerful to overcome. Good characters should be anguished by the abundance of human misery in civilized areas, however, and they should be dedicated to aiding however they can short of attempting suicidal actions.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting
Side-bar, Page 197

It’s been a long time since I read a game book in which I’ve found nothing to argue with. Sometimes, it’s a list of horrible glaring errors that make me want to chuck a book across a room (Exalted, I’m lookin’ at you…), and other times it’s a few niggling little things that make my eye twitch, but I pass over it because the rest of the game is solid. Sometimes, it’s just one thing. In this case, the just-one-thing is the quote above, a side-bar from the Dark Sun campaign book. I’ve always had some difficulty reconciling the alignment system in D&D with the way I envision morality in fantasy fiction, but things like this just really slam the point of subjective morality home for me.

I wish I had a degree in philosophy. Actually, I don’t, but I wish I had taken a couple of classes on ethics so that I could better address issues of morality within the context of role-playing games (which is actually what I think about the vast majority of classes I wish I had taken…). When I was living with Steve Bignell in Stettler, we’d have long rambling discussions about epistemology that would devolve into horrible debates about semantics’ place in a philosophical discussion. Those debates were invariably my fault, as I don’t actually trust language as a medium for transferring ideas, and feel the need to hammer out definitions before I’m comfortable discussing anything as profound as ‘thought.’ I’m sure he tells horror stories about me to other philosophers, and they huddle in their blankets and shiver off the sudden chills that runs down their spines.

So, to be fair, I don’t really have a solid backing to discuss the meta-ethical implications of things like ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ and ‘moral relativism.’ Even if I did have such a background, I’d spend half the time talking about how we can’t actually define good and evil well enough for anyone to have a decent argument about them.

What I do feel a little more comfortable talking about  is descriptive relativism. As a white man in North America, who grew up in a belief system not entirely alienated from basic Christian values, I can look at the Asian people of Northern China and say “Those people have different beliefs than I do; that does not make them evil people.” It’s an important skill for a role-playing gamer to have, as it means you can disconnect your own personal beliefs from the beliefs of your character, if you’re playing a character that comes from a background greatly divergent from your own.

And let’s be fair, every character you play in a game of Dungeons & Dragons is going to hail from a background greatly divergent from you own. There is no McDonalds in Athas. You cannot watch reruns of Friends in Eberron. Greyhawk doesn’t have flushing toilets. The lives and beliefs of the fictional people we create in role-playing games are varied and strange, and that often means that we need to stretch some of our own beliefs to be able to play those characters reasonably well.

One of the recurring problems in Dungeons & Dragons, from it’s very first edition, is the idea of an objective morality that is based on the values and traditions of the 20th-Century United States of America. The alignment system assumes that there is a True Good and a True Evil, and that those lines are drawn along good ol’ American beliefs. Which is, y’know, wrong. There is no objective Good and Evil in the world; these are concepts that are built from the customs, worldview and teachings of the culture in which an individual is raised. Is female genital cutting evil? To a lot of people, particularly those coming from a Western cultural background (and well versed in the medical ramifications), it certainly seems to be. But people keep doing it, to their own children, not out of some horrific desire to maim young women, but as a practical, cultural and religious practice. You can’t be a ‘good’ parent if your daughter doesn’t undergo genital cutting.

But we’re not talking about female genital cutting, we’re talking about slavery, and the implication that owning slaves, in a culture where slavery is commonplace, automatically lowers a person’s moral standing.

Now, I’m not going to deny that slavery is, in my culture and in my opinion, evil. North Americans own a pretty rough history with slavery. The United States was pretty late in abolishing it, and half of it fought a war to try and keep the practice legal, and that has had some long-reaching repercussions for them. And before my Canadian brothers and sisters start getting smug, I’ll remind everyone that we had slaves here until 1834, and engaged in the wage-slavery of Chinese immigrants to finish our railroad. The fact that slavery was only so recently abolished in North America, and the treatment of ex-slaves and their descendants after emancipation, makes slavery something of hot-button topic for us.

Not to say that it isn’t still happening, of course. People are still abducted and forced to do things they don’t want to do for the rest of their lives. True story. Go read The Natashas. It will break your heart.

So yeah. Slavery is evil, it is a violation of fundamental human rights, and I strongly condemn it in all forms. But I know enough about the world to know that my view of slavery is not universal, and that, historically at the very least, there are cultures that believe(d) the exact opposite. There are cultures that believe(d) that slavery was a viable way to get things done. And it really did get things done. Some of those things would have been impossible without slaves at the time. So, at the very least, proponents of slavery can argue that the practice of slavery has been very useful.

To the non-slave people of Athas, slavery is not evil. Not even a ‘necessary evil.’ Slavery is a good thing, something that good people use to make sure important shit gets done. It is a work-force that can be made to do anything (even things that hurt them), indefinitely, because no one else will do it. Owning slaves doesn’t preclude you from being a good person in a world like Dark Sun. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you can’t be a good person without owning slaves, but I think it would be an indicator of standing in a community. “John’s a right sort of fellow. Well tended front yard, coaches little league, owns some twelve slaves, and keeps ‘em well, too. Those are some mannered slaves, he’s got.”

And it’s not like slavery lacks supporters in the real world. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke all viewed it as an important part of a proper social system. And previous to the abolition of slavery in North America, there were those who supported it as an institution, suggesting that slaves were better off indentured than they would be free (and given the living conditions of simple waged workers, and the open racial hostilities at the time, this sentiment was likely closer to the mark than we’d like to think), and that slavery was an important, integral supporter of the economy. There were arguments for years over the perceived benefits of slavery over abolition, and not all of the men and women fighting for the cause of slavery were evil people; they were trying to do what they thought was best, politically, economically, religiously, and even legally.

Again, I’d like to reiterate that I do not support slavery in any way, and believe it to be a vile and horrific fate for those who have been forced to suffer through it. But I’m not Athasian, and I don’t live in a society where slavery is the norm. While I refuse to play let’s-pretend on my own morals, I can say with certainty that the non-slave population of Athas would be unlikely to condemn the practice as an evil one. And I think a well-thought-out write-up on the topic of slavery in D&D, as opposed to a tip-toeing side-bar would have been a much better way to deal with the issue.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

First Thoughts on Dark Sun

So the store got Dark Sun in today. I can sell it as of Friday (remember, folks, if you go play at your Friendly Local Game Store’s organized events, they get to keep running them, and when they run enough of them, they get to sell you product eleven days before Street Date). I’ve already had a flip through the setting book, and a briefer flip through the creature catalogue, and both look like solid Dungeons & Dragons manuals. I think my only beef with Dark Sun is the mantra “there are some things in D&D that don’t really fit in Dark Sun.” It seems to pop up at least once per chapter, and I realize it’s something they need to hammer home to make sure people don’t play an Avenger in Athas, but I think saying it once, right at the beginning of the book, was enough. If you had taken all of the “this doesn’t fit” repetitions and set them in one place, it would serve as a solid reference page for what to disallow in Dark Sun games.

And let me just say, up front, that I think Athas is kind of a strange step for D&D4. Thus far, the inclusivist ideal for Dungeons & Dragons has been pushed really hard. There has been this theme throughout the publication history of the latest edition that anything from Eberron can be used in a Points of Light setting or a Forgotten Realms game, and vice versa. The same isn’t true of Dark Sun; while you can certainly use whatever you like from Dark Sun in other games, the reverse is heavily shit upon throughout the book. There are a lot of settings that could have used an update that would have fit the inclusion market strategy more elegantly. Even creating a new setting would have been a solid idea, and I think that it’s about time Wizards look at Fantasy Setting Search II: The ReSearching.

That aside, I think this is a solid product, for a lot of reasons. The most important to me, right off the bat, is character themes. This is something I want to see explored in broader terms. I want to see Eberron themes, and Forgotten Realms themes, and a Ravenloft theme, and some generic points-of-light themes (not unlike the Lover I wrote up before I got to see Dark Sun properly). One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about D&D4 is that characters lack customization, and themes provide both a customization option (which is fun) and something I can point at and say “There. That’s where the customization lives. Fuck you.” I mean, even with the growing number of class builds, it’s been pretty tough to make yourself a pirate, y’know? There really aren’t that many good swashbuckling powers for fighters; or, for that matter, wizards. Now, we have pirates. You want to represent that you’re noble born? Well, step away from the Auspicious Birth background, and say hello to the Nobleborn theme.

Another touch I loved was the idea of getting powers as magic gear. The heading is gold, like an item, there is a value in gold pieces, like an item, but you just gain a power, forever. I suppose it could be taken away by the same sorts of mystical forces that would give you the power in the first place, but barring such an occasion, you have permanent access to a new ability. They suggest that this should be used as an alternative reward for gear, when one is in a place of power or some such. Personally, I prefer the idea of being granted a power by a patron or by some powerful person you’ve just saved from certain doom, or for allowing your DM to do something stupid to your character for story reasons (Skull, you’ll be getting your ability to turn people into squirrels through this mechanic). One of the more interesting bits about powers-as-gear is that the powers can have a property attached to them. For instance, I could give someone a level-5 power that gave them a +2 bonus to Reflex every time they use a martial power. On top of that, have a daily-use martial attack.

In a world where your best magic item could break in an instant, powers-as-treasure makes a lot of sense. In worlds where your magic gear isn’t going to break, it makes for an interesting alternative to the normal 3500gp art item, plus 500gp. The best part: because they have a gold-piece value, you can just slot them in to a same-level magic item parcel.

I only skimmed the atlas of the world, being far more interested in the crunchy bits. It seems very much like the normal D&D4 world information, though a nice touch was the addition of “personalities” in each area. These are little NPC ideas inset into the text as a sidebar, and give you someone worth talking to when you happen to be in the Merchant District of Tyr. There is a huge poster-map at the back of the book, which I have not yet had the pleasure of opening. It’s in full color, and the usual Wizards of the Coast quality for large world maps.

All in all, this looks like a solid book. I probably won’t be writing up a more in-depth review, because I have other things to do, but you should probably buy this book, and then love its crunchy bits to death. Simple things like weapon breakage, or more in-depth things like inherent bonuses by level (which are a godsend for people using double-experience to breeze through encounters while giving out meager bits of gear… like some game masters… that I’ve heard of…) are fantastic to add to any campaign, and the more setting specific stuff, like Defiling Magic and wild psionic talents are well done, and still feel very much like Dark Sun.