Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Advanced Gygaxian Morality

Some recent finds at Half-Price Books, including the above gem, has inspired this new blog feature. 
I am happy to report that, unbeknownest to me, Gygax dedicated this book to me.  (Oh, okay, to you, too.)
1987.  The co-creator of D&D had left TSR at the end of '85.  What had he been doing since losing his company and his game?  One thing he had been doing was writing Role-Playing Mastery: Tips, Tactics and Strategies for Improving Your Participation in any Role-Playing Game, which came out in the year under considerationIt makes sense to me that Gary would have been looking for a chance to continue to profit from his creation in a legal way, pass on the mature accumulation of his gaming experience to his considerable audience, and -- to really go out on a limb and speculate -- perhaps seek a closure that eluded him ever after, if not the same level of success that he had achieved before he lost it all.  Reading through the first 40 pages (through Chapter 2), it struck me that Gary continues to qualify play with variations of the predicate "the right way."  "What authorial One-True-Wayism is about to be foisted on us?" I inwardly cringed.

The more I read and pondered these opening chapters, the more I suspected that there was not a lot to fear in Gygax's statements, after all.  What seems to come to the fore is, above all, a moral vision of play.  Consider Gygax's attempt to summarize the spirit of AD&D:

This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people.  Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarves, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominate force in the world.  They have and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans -- the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game.  ... evil exists in the game primarily as an obstacle for player characters to over come (26-27).
He then goes on to make a connection that makes a straight line from the character in the game to the player at the table: success is achieved in the game by cooperation.  Victory, the good goals of the characters, is the result of the effort of the players coming together as a group.  It should not surprise us that a game played by a group would promulgate an ethic that surely must be labeled communitarian.  Gygax explicitly identifies power-hungry individuals (designers as well as players) who attempt to dominate the PC's milieu by the accumulation of their character's power out of balance with the group, rather than through the accumulation of skill as a player, as cheaters and perverters of the game.  Such "players who confuse the general welfare of the game with their self interest... seek to participate as elephants in a game of ants" (30).

Maybe all of this seems so self-evident as to be unworthy of special attention to some of my readers.  If so, I ask you to cast your mind back over the social issues that have disturbed games in your experience.  Were these not in fact symptoms that Gygax identified of someone playing "the wrong way?" 

The other issue that my mind immediately connects with these meditations is one of the great troll baits of the RPGosphere: alignment.  How would alignment look now, tied back to the real-world necessity he has identified?  Would it not address "the need to make stark the villains and highlight the heroes" (34)?  Apart from this and the reference alignment provides for getting in the mindset of character and milieu, "there is little or no need to deal with such concepts in the game framework" (Ibid). If so, this is difficult for those of us who have pursued some serious study of ethics, moral philosophy, or moral theology to accept.  But maybe it shouldn't be.  Most role-players (I am reflecting on my own experience) know just enough about one or two points of ethics as to be able to put their own eye out with their moral rhetoric, if not the eyes of their interlocutors as well.  In other words, they know just as much about that as they do about the finer points of medieval arms and armor or the ins and outs of a silver-based economy before the rise of capitalism.  And in this case, where the fact that perhaps most people are moral midgets in at least some area of ethical consideration anyway combines with this kind of intellectual dilettantism in a particularly volatile way, leading to the kind of alignment slugfests that we have all seen on various messageboards and that are undoubtedly finding some expression in some people's games somewhere.  Still, greater needs may be accommodated in the area of morality without transgressing Gygax's general observations.  Just as some groups will need more complexity and different milieus than other groups in the area of economics or physics, some may have different needs in the area of morality.  Know your group and work with your group towards the group's good, says the guiding Gygaxian spirit.  This is what judges player's actions as good or bad.  A good player may role-play acts in the game that are judged evil by some standards in the real world, however they may be judged in the game's milieu.  Gygax insists on the parallel of the stage:  we hate Claudius, not Sir Derek Jacobi.  We don't blame Imelda Staunton for the things Dolores Umbridge does.  (Tracing the characters back to Shakespeare or Rowling simply confirm these judgments.)  As he bluntly puts it, mastering play means mastering the difference between pretend and reality.

Does this shine any light on your gaming and thinking?  Or does it stir up a mighty Post of Correction, +3?  I look forward to seeing what sharing this may shake out.  I hope that you look forward to further rambles through Gygax's Role-Playing Mastery in future installments of Tomeful Tuesday, as I do!

Let the master tell you how it's done.  Gygax in 2007.  Photo by Alan De Smet.  CC.