Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Two Studies in Alignment

Some people hate the standard D&D system of alignment—the morality rubric you assign your character. I’m not among them. As a shorthand for the attitude of a character in an epic fantasy game, that nine point grid is pretty effective, giving a general idea of your character’s attitude, and letting you fly from there. It’s not realistic, they say, but whatever, it’s a fictional construct applied to a fictional construct, helping me express how that construct feels about stabbing ogres. They say it’s not nuanced, but we’re talking Epic Fantasy here, with capital letters. Once we start talking about raising armies of the dead and whatnot, doesn’t the grey area go away? It’s a worthy system to quantify a character’s attitude and as such, it’s become its own sort of meme, with people assigning the Lawfuls and Chaotics to beloved casts. Just this past week, I came across two beloved by me, one pretty good, the other problematic, one for Community, and one for The Wire. So why not take a look at both?

            For any out there unacquainted, alignment is a grid of 9, created by pairing traits. On the y-axis is the moral component: good, neutral, or evil—those, I’d hope, are self-explanatory. The x-axis is trickier, expressing attitudes toward law, order, and government, broken down into Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. A Lawful person holds themselves to some sort of order outside themselves—a government, usually, but it can also be a code of honor—while a Chaotic person actively rankles against such things, with Neutral, as always, holding no strong opinions one way or the other. Put those two traits together, and you have your alignment, the two halves coloring each other, and giving you a handy way to consider your character’s role in the world.
            A Lawful Good character, for example, endeavors to help people, but does so within the rules—a just government they serve, or a code of honor to which they’ve sworn, for example.  They’re the good cops, enforcers of and believers in just law, and thus LG is a good alignment for knights and kindly kings.
            Neutral Good characters are just plain good, without giving too much thought for political concerns. It’s a very path-of-least resistance alignment for a hero—they’re not good for a code or cause, they’re just good.
            Chaotic Good characters are the do-gooder rebels, the guys fighting against tyranny for the sake of the little guy—they’re the Robin Hoods, not willing to work within a system to fix it. As such, this is a monumentally popular alignment.
            Lawful Neutral characters aren’t usually for players, seeing as they’re supporters of the status quo. Order’s goodness or evilness is irrelevant to LN characters, they’re just devoted to keeping the machine running, thus, it’s a good alignment for sycophants, though it can be used for stern, letter-of-the-law sorts too.
            True Neutral (better term than Neutral Neutral, I guess) has always been strange. When I first read about it, it was defined as a desire to maintain the balance of the universe, which, even at 10, struck me as stupid for anyone who wasn’t a god from beyond the furthest reaches of existence. It’s since been modified, and now is more for those who just hold themselves apart from the struggles between the poles, for whatever reason, which is a bit more workable. It’s become the alignment for monks removing themselves from the material world, space-cadets, and impractical theorists.
            Chaotic Neutral, also popular and frequently abused, is the classic choice of thieves. Actively opposed to rules, but without the noble or nefarious aspirations of CG and CE, CN characters tend to be selfish and self-centered, but not actively malicious, but the alignment can also be used to justify a character who just does shit, because, whatever.
            Lawful Evil characters are the bad cops—tyrants, those who exploit government and position for their own gain, or even those who actively enforce unjust law without question. Just about any portrayal of Roman nobility from, well, ever is LE.
            Neutral Evil characters are, well, basically just evil. They’re selfish about their evil because they’re independent—no affectations of being part of something like the LE guys, but not nihilists we’ll get to in a minute. Bad guys with schemes are good NE sorts.
            Lastly is Chaotic Evil, the worst of the worst. They’re unrepentant wreckers of shit, nihilists as I said earlier. A CE character does whatever their cruel appetites demand, and love nothing more than destroying things.
            Obviously, alignments on the opposite ends of the grid reflect opposite world views, and will be most strongly opposed to each other. Also obviously, alignments can change, too, usually one step at a time, but drastic events can cause drastic shifts. Likewise obviously, this is an imperfect expression of the breadth and depth of human behavior, but again, as a fictionalized abstraction, it works. Sometimes it gets abused—players all choose CN so they can act at random, or a DM harshly penalizes playing outside the lines. But again, I think it works fine as a general guide to general behavior and attitude, as long as a few things are kept in mind.
            First: actions matter. Second: intentions matter. The alignment system is ripe ground for the sort of moral philosophizing you’d expect from precocious 5th grade geeks, but discussion seems to get stuck there. Some can’t get past “The villain thinks he’s the hero” to “The villain can think he’s the hero and still be a villain.” Likewise “What if the baby saved grows up to be Hitler?” Anyway, with those provisos in mind, let’s begin this painfully contorted endeavor with some fan’s assignment of Community characters.
            I have to say, this looks pretty good to me, and from what I’ve seen, looks pretty good to just about everyone. Indeed, what strikes me is how neatly the characters fall into place, even though they’re some of the most richly drawn and performed out there. Shirley has her flaws, but I think few would argue isn’t Lawful Good, by virtue of her devout faith and desire to share it all too imperfectly. Likewise, despite his charm and sympathy, a man who faked a law degree and rode it to platinum faucets like Jeff is pretty perfectly Lawful Evil. Annie’s a bit of a grey area, but she’s fundamentally decent, and seems to value rules more as a matter of personal integrity, so Neutral Good fits fine. Pierce’s methodical, malicious selfishness match well with Neutral Evil, and Chang, the Destroyer, is as Chaotic Evil as they come.
            The point of contention for some is in Britta’s Chaotic Good. There are a few reasons for this—though her anti-authoritarian attitude speaks strongly Chaotic, her frequent hangovers, pettiness, and the way she acquires concert tickets don’t seem traditionally Good. She herself has doubts, saying at least once that she does good things because she’s afraid she’s not a good person. Furthermore, she’s a buzzkill, where the stereotypical CG is fun. So the reasoning goes she’s a better Chaotic Neutral, and Troy, good-natured and fun, ought be CG.
            I can’t agree with either. Troy is fun, good-natured, and harmless, but the picture used is the perfect illustration of CN—ruled by his id, there is a giant cookie, he wants it, he will eat the whole thing. For her part, Britta’s inability to live up to the standards she’s constructed for herself has no bearing on her behavior, which is consistently supportive of individual liberty, egalitarianism, the downtrodden, and her friends, even when she doesn’t agree with their choices. When the group played D&D, Britta alone cared for the plight of the gnome waiters. Also, remember that opposite alignments represent the strongest conflicts? Note her opposite.
            So like I said, that one I thought was pretty good. The next one, though, might be a bit more tricky. So let’s go spot by spot.
Is Cedric Daniels Lawful Good? Absolutely. I may have put Beadie or Kima in there, but Cedric’s a great choice.
Is Bubs Neutral Good? At the point pictured, recovering from his addictions and struggling to make a life as Reginald Cousins, undoubtedly yes (and my quote of choice would have been “Time going to make it right by them too, I guess.”). But in his addict days, scheming, scamming, and hustling for his fix at the cost of all other concerns, he was definitely Chaotic Neutral. Bunk, and eventually Cutty and Prez are other strong candidates.
Characters on The Wire don’t come much more Chaotic Good than Jimmy McNulty, drunk, asshole, flouter of authority in his single-minded war against the system’s injustices. What I like most about figures like Britta and Jimmy in this spot, is they’re smug, sanctimonious, and pretty annoying, where the perception is that CG characters are fun. Yet CG they are—both characters who look at the world as it works, find it lacking, and elect to do something about it, whether people appreciate it or not. Chaotic, good, and smug. Other good options include Lester and Bunny Colvin.
Here, we start having problems, this chart and I. Lawful Neutrals maintain the status quo, good or ill, Hell or high water, because any order is better than none. Grasping, venal, selfish, power-hungry Thomas Carcetti does not fit that bill. If The Wire has an ultimate villain, it is Carcetti, the one character who regularly had the power to do the right thing, and decided to grab more power instead. He maintains nothing but his own ambition—promises only good until he’s won the next election, choices only set to win the next one, when his policies threaten to rip the city apart, he is all too happy to angrily lay blame on his subordinates. He’s Lawful Evil to the core. Who, then, fits better as Lawful Neutral? For my money, the best choice here must be Jay Landsman, the character not the real guy, a man who has learned to keep his head down. “Now, I didn’t like it when they came to me and told me to dump Norris, but dump him I did,” he tells Kima, instructing her on the delicate political balance that Homicide requires. “And it’s not like I’m happy to carry their water now that they pretend they told me no such thing, but carry the water I will. And in the end, when everyone else in this unit is buried and beshitted, this Detective Sergeant will still be standing. So get the story straight.” Words to live by.
Omar’s richly deserved love blinds us to one fact of his character: he’s not nice. Bunk has his number stone cold, calling out Omar as every bit the parasite as the dealers he preys upon. He doesn’t put his gun on no citizen, because a man must have a code, but he’s also vicious and violent and terrible in his wrath in a self-centered way that speaks to, I’m sorry to say, Evil. True Neutral is a hard fit, but I think the character that mostly closely fits is Frank Sobotka, driven to save his Union at the cost of everything else.
We miss an important fact about Avon, too. Avon has built a massive empire on people’s weaknesses and the will to kill, but he, as a man must, has a code. There is a way to play the Game, whether the game is slinging or basketball, and there are rules to be followed. No hits on Sunday. The ref is king of the court, and must act as such. Yes, Avon is a Lawful Evil guy, not Chaotic Neutral. As I said earlier, Bubs in the throes of his addiction is Chaotic Neutral, but a good and far more dangerous example is Ziggy.
The Wire offers LEs aplenty, in all sorts of shapes and flavors. Carcetti and Avon we’ve mentioned already, but there are abusers of position like Valchek, overzealous enforcers like Herc, loyal soldiers serving a rotten cause like Bodie, and lawyer scum like Levy. Stringer, though, I’m not convinced is among them. His apathy for the code of the street that Avon cherishes (and obviously he doesn’t hold regular law in very high regard either) makes me want to say he’s Neutral Evil. Carcetti, though, is the ultimate emblem of the alignment.
Clay Davis abuses his position of legitimate power too much to be Neutral Evil, I feel. He’s a corrupt politician, where LE hangs its hat. NE is better applied to characters who are more independent in their evil, someone like the aforementioned String, or Prop Joe (“Foo’. If it weren’t for Sergei you and your cousin would be cadaverous motherfuckers.”), or The Greek (“Business…always business.”).
Is Marlo Chaotic Evil? Absolutely. Snoop, too, for that matter.
            In the latest version of D&D, the alignment system has been stripped down to irrelevance. Shame. As I hope I’ve illustrated here, the old and clunky system may not be the greatest reflection of human behavior, but it’s a decent enough filing system, and sometimes fun.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the best analyses of traditional D&D alignment and modern interpretations that I've seen. (surprising that there are enough out there for that sentence to be genuine praise, isn't it? I love the internet ...) Thanks for the insightful discussion!