Darth Vader vs. House: On Ethics in Role-Playing Games

Chase and Dibala on House

Is Chase "chaotic good" for having killed Dibala? I immediately turned to my D&D homebrew rules to provide an assessment.

So last week, I was watching the November 23 episode of House, “Teamwork,” (Season 6, Episode 7) where Cameron quits the hospital because of the ethical quagmire Chase has gotten himself into over killing African dictator Dibala (aka Darth Vader).

Naturally, ethical quagmires get me thinking about two things: Dr. Hall’s Philosophy 101 ethics class back in my undergraduate years at Stetson (he resembled the Colonel from KFC) and Dungeons & Dragons, which arguably has had as much an influence on my life as college.

So in a moment of nerdy insight, I asked myself: Is Chase “chaotic good” for having killed Dibala? I immediately turned to my homebrew rules to provide an assessment. To explain my answer to this question, however, I’ll have to take you into the world of fantasy ethics, a sorely overlooked game mechanic in the traditional tabletop RPG.

For those of you who didn’t see this episode (or don’t follow House), the subplot in House as of late (which led to Cameron’s quitting and leaving Chase [her husband]) revolves around Chase and Foreman having covered up Dibala’s death. The dictator landed in the hospital’s care, and after the team learned about the dictator’s connection to various mass murders in Africa, Chase decided to ensure Dibala didn’t survive his stay, and with Foreman’s (begrudging) help, he successfully covered up the “murder.”

Now, the way ethics has been handled in D&D hasn’t changed much since I started playing the game (which was in 1998, before the abomination that is Third Edition ruined role-playing forever), though the definition of “alignment” in the game has. Alignment is D&D’s way of classifying characters by their moral inclinations. The rather simplistic model involves pairing one of two dimensions of “Law” and “Chaos” with one of two dimensions of “Good” and “Evil” (plus “Neutrality”) to create a set of ten alignments:

  • Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral Good
  • Lawful Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Neutral (and True Neutral)
  • Neutral Evil,  Lawful Evil,  Chaotic Evil

These nine alignments (plus True Neutral) were set in stone when TSR published Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D or Second Edition), the first major overhaul of the system since First Edition came out in 1974. (Back then, grizzled wargamers of yesteryear had only “Law,” “Neutrality,” and “Chaos” to play with, and no official mechanic for “Good” or “Evil.”) It’s safe to say that Gygax’s goal in creating alignment, and that of subsequent gamer designers from edition to edition, wasn’t to add an exegesis on moral philosophy to the D&D framework, but to simply help players shape the motivations of their characters in the context of the game world. Second Edition defined alignment as “a factor in defining a player character that reflects his basic attitude toward society and the forces of the universe.” This basic conception of the nine alignments remained intact through Third Edition and 3.5, long after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in the twilight of the publisher’s days.

But today we are far more sophisticated in our role-playing. I mean, these days we can tweet our achievements in World of Warcraft, we have things like multitasking, buffs, and DPS. Certainly the naïve underpinnings of alignment are due for another overhaul over at D&D’s modern-day publisher, Wizards of the Coast (WotC)?

In WotC’s never-ending quest to reduce tabletop role-playing to a pale imitation of the MMORPG, the latest edition of D&D, Fourth, decided to strip alignment of any meaning and reduce it to the following options (and I quote):

  • Lawful Good: Civilization and order.
  • Good: Freedom and kindness.
  • Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand.
  • Evil: Tyranny and hatred.
  • Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction.

Sad indeed. But there is hope, my AD&D-playing compatriots. With a deeper understanding of those original nine alignments, we can not only answer the questions about Chase’s alignment, but answer them with philosophical finesse.

Rethinking Good & Evil

On Ethics in Role-Playing Games

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