Friday, October 11, 2013

DnD Next: You Got Science in My Fantasy by James Wyatt

On Tuesday James Wyatt’s latest Wandering Monster article, You Got Science in My Fantasy, was published on the Wizards of the Coast website. Unlike previous articles in the series this one is incredibly convoluted and very confusing. Partly this occurs because he confuses questions throughout the article and then there are his logical leaps that at first seem to be unconnected and after reflection appear to be outright wrong. I’m hoping that by analyzing the article that a better understanding will come.

I’m also hoping to win the lottery.

The article begins with a simple premise as Mr. Wyatt writes, “. . . I want to have a sort of philosophical discussion about what fantasy is, and how D&D reflects that . . .” (You Got Science in My Fantasy). This sort of introduction creates the expectation that the article will promptly deal with the topic at hand, however, this is not the case. Instead we begin a discussion about orc babies and how to morally deal with them.

Orc Babies

“. . . What should adventurers do when they fight their way into the orc lair and find where all the orc babies are? In particular, what should the paladin do . . .” (You Got Science in My Fantasy)?

How you answer these two questions tells a lot about your world views and about your views on alignment in the Dungeons and Dragons game.

Let’s look at the answer to that first question. On the one hand you can argue, quite convincingly, that orcs are intrinsically evil beings and that there is no redemption for them as they are created evil and will remain so from birth to death. While on the other hand you can argue, again quite convincingly, that orcs are not intrinsically evil, but that they are the product of their cultural heritage, social mores, and societal pressures; as such they can be redeemed. In the context of Dungeons and Dragons which view is correct?

If you hold that alignments are solid, that they do not fluctuate based on circumstance, then the orcs are evil creatures from birth to the grave. Redemption for an evil creature is not something that can be long lasting as their intrinsic nature will eventually win out and they will revert to evil. By the same token good creatures will not permanently remain corrupted as their internal natures will eventually win out and they will do the right thing.

This sort of rigid alignment is very difficult for most people to hold but in a classical fantasy setting it is very much the sort that is expressed most often. J. R. R. Tolkien, Sir Thomas Malory, T.H. White, Sir Walter Scott and so many other authors created fantasy worlds where good and evil were concepts as starkly different as black and white. This is because it is easier for the reader and for the author to resolve the moral questions that arise from murdering evil creatures. This allows us to justifiably say, “They had to go because they were evil; and in killing them I am performing a good act.

All that means that if you believe in rigid alignments you have to be okay with killing orc children. Because they are evil, always will be evil, and in killing them you are performing a good act. For so many of us that is hard to stomach because the act of killing a child is a red line, or an act that is so vile that we refuse to contemplate its fulfilment.

The other side of this argument represents the view of a flexible alignment where circumstance matters and how you are born is only one factor in our assessment of your moral character. Redemption of the orcs is not only possible here but readily accomplishable. In many ways this understanding of alignment reflects the modern nature of fantasy literature. People are not intrinsically evil or good in modern fiction; which makes their redemptions more lasting and fulfilling for the reader – but it also means that when they fall to corruption that the depths of that fall are much, much deeper. Authors such as M. John Harrison, Robert E. Howard, and Ursula K. Le’Guin are just a few examples of this more complicated view of morality that has developed since World War I. In their books the characters’ actions are often taken under conflicted emotions where people struggle within themselves with doing the right thing. This means that the world isn’t defined by stark contrasts and instead of living in a world defined by black and white morality, we’re living in a world filled with a muddled grey.

Which means that killing those children can’t be justified by simply saying, “They’re orcs, what other reason do we need for killing them?” Instead we have to look at the fullness of their actions assessing the society, and the individual’s moral actions; while understanding that doing so places our own morals against theirs. That’s an overly complicated way of saying, “You don’t kill baby orcs. That’s just fucking wrong.”

After analyzing both sides of the argument we have to deal with the second question: what does the paladin do. In practical terms this question is largely solved by group consensus; and in poorly run games, Dungeon Master fiat. In rigid alignment games the orc children are slaughtered and the Paladin pops the top off his brew of choice and celebrates a good day’s work; and in flexible alignment games the children are brought into the paladin’s church and redeemed through the good works and teachings of the church.

“. . . Who says orcs have babies . . .” (You GotScience in My Fantasy)?

After discussing the Nature and Nurture debate Mr. Wyatt digresses onto the topic of orc children. I’ll be honest, it never occurred to me that any race in the game would not be having children.

One more point before we move on to Dragons, Dragonborn, and Griffons. Mr. Wyatt brings up an incredibly important criticism against using the flexible alignment system for Dungeons and Dragons: Moral Relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that right and wrong are not absolute values, and that they change based on the person involved.

That is a dangerous idea to a game where good and evil matter. Or as Gary Gygax put it, 

“. . . Dungeons & Dragons . . . 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 (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved 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. Although players can take the roles of “bad guys” if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists in the game primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome. If they succeed in doing this, as time goes on, player characters become more experienced and more powerful - which enables them to contest successfully against increasingly stronger evil adversaries. Each character, by virtue of his or her chosen profession, has strengths and weaknesses distinctly different from those possessed by other types of characters. No single character has all the skills and resources needed to guarantee success in all endeavors; favorable results can usually only be achieved through group effort. No single player character wins, in the sense that he or she defeats all other player characters; the goal of the forces of good can only be attained through cooperation, so that victory is a group achievement rather than an individual one . . .” (Gygax, pgs. 26-27).

When we move away from a standard of good and evil we move away from the core concept of the game, its spirit if you will. We lose that certain something that has made this game so important to us and we do so for what?

Yes it means that we’re going to be killing those orc children when we live in that black and white world of morality. But in our defense of doing so, in a game where the morality standard is one of stark contrasts those children will be attempting to kill us – they are evil after all.

Dragons, Dragonborn, and Griffons.

Let’s talk about the evolution of dragons for a bit – or rather the lack thereof. Let me explain. In a fantasy setting there are two ways to proceed when it comes to the creatures of your world. Either you can create the creatures out of thin air, appearing from the aether fully formed and ready to rock; or you can create your creatures by evolving them slowly over time from previously existing creatures in a way that makes a sort of logical sense.

For Mr. Wyatt the first approach is the only one that matters – and that’s incredibly smart. By eliminating the evolutionary creation of monsters he frees himself from being bound by the lockstep logic of reality. Instead he can create humanoid dragons, wild animal cross-breeds that defy even the vaguest hope of logic, and elemental monsters that couldn’t possibly exist anywhere but in this fantastic game.

“. . . Where did griffons come from? Possibly from a magical experiment that "crossed" or combined eagles and lions. Or some nature deity, maybe the same one that created eagles and lions, created them too, as noble hunters of the skies. Are they mammals or birds? No. Owlbears? Same thing . . .” (You Got Science in My Fantasy).

Mos Eisley and Waterdeep

Now that we’ve established that rigid alignment is best and that a world of fantasy without scientific accuracy is preferable we come to the question of what our day-to-day world actually looks like. To illustrate this difference Mr. Wyatt looks to Star Wars and the tavern at Mos Eisley, where Han Solo shot first, as opposed to those taverns in Waterdeep.

In that tavern at Mos Eisley you have this remarkable assortment of humanoid aliens frequenting a bar on some backwash world that wouldn’t be remembered if it weren’t for Luke freaking Skywalker. Intellectually we’re able to accept this because by that point in the movie we’ve already said, fuck it. But in our fantasy games set on earth-like worlds it’s  harder for us to accept that same level of diversity because we have a mythic precedent in our literature that has established which races we’re likely to encounter (elves, gnomes, dwarves, and hobbits).

That’s a difficult point to accept as a Dungeon Master because we establish the nature of our world in a very personal manner. We make the decision on how frequently our players encounter trolls, goblins, orcs, and every other monster under the sun. If we establish early that goblins live peacefully in our cities then goblins are accepted by our players. That is the line in the sand where Mr. Wyatt crosses and there is no defense for his point.

I abandon him completely on that line.

Mythic Resonance

One of the more important points in this article is the idea of Mythic Resonance, or a shared cultural touchstone that is understood by practically all participants. For Mr. Wyatt the most obvious source for mythic resonance is J. R. R. Tolkien and his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Not only are the books some of the most read classical fantasy novels, but the movies have proven to be some of the most successful franchises in history. That’s a lot of people who have a working knowledge of elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, wizards, and dragons; and that knowledge establishes a pattern of behavior, speech, and action that can translate in a meaningful sense into our hobby.

But in searching for that mythic resonance and clutching to it so tightly Mr. Wyatt loses the freedom of creativity that has been such a hallmark of our game.

The Survey

After reading all of this there is a survey at the end of the article about the nature and nurture argument in relation to the game. I would urge you to go there, participate in the survey and leave a comment.  


Works Cited

Gygax, Gary. Role-playing Mastery. New York. Perigee Books, 1987: 26-27

Wyatt, James. You Got Science in 8, Oct. 2013


  1. I guess the GM have to define if orcs are a species or a mythical monster that bubble from evil goo. I think some confusion or arguments come from the way D&D blur the line between biological and mythical being by often giving biological attributes to mythical being and treating them like biological species.

    But on the other hand the alignment system work better if you consider it like a mythical alignment, like Chaos in Elric or in Warhammer.

    1. I hate the Elric books; but Warhammer is pretty boss.


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