21 October 2012

Relativistic Alignment Models: “Seven Senses”


The 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbook (1989) notes that alignment is an important tool in roleplaying, but emphasizes that it should be “a tool, not a straitjacket.” An alignment system serves as a moral codex which dictates not necessarily a player character's exact behaviour, but provides a model of moral reasoning that delineates a character's ethical boundaries for roleplay. In this blog post, I'll take a closer look at AD&D's alignment model, problematize its absolute representations of evil, and propose an alternative, relativistic model for alignment called Seven Senses.

Alignment models like those used in the 2nd edition AD&D PHB traditionally situate ethical behaviour in a biaxial model of absolutes (law/chaos & good/evil-- the ethical and moral axes, respectively), a style I refer to as “Ethical Axes.” This style of using prescribed moral absolutes essentializes the nature of evil in all people to whom it is ascribed. In so doing, it fails to re-create a few complex, but common social relations.

In an absolute model like the “Ethical Axes” of D&D, monsters are distinct from characters because they self-identify as evil. We know that few people do this because of the social and cultural importance of moral self-identity. While providing a convenient hand-wave to the unethical acts committed against those it prescribes as evil, the rhetorical allowance of absolute evil tends to prevent a situation from arising in which two people knowingly doing what they see as good can see each other as evil. There is no variance in moral cognition between characters in an absolute system. Even should two Chaotic Good characters become hated enemies, they would still perceive each other as their respective alignments. The absolute model supposes that evil is omnideducible (i.e., that it's always possible to know who is evil because evil is either constant or permanent), which is problematic for a number of reasons that for brevity's sake I won't go into.

The model of Senses restructures alignment as a way of ambiguating the nature of evil. It does this to assist in recreating common, but complex phenomena where two self-identified moral persons both think each other evil. Rather than being tied to the problematically absolute dialectics of D&D's Ethical Axes, a Sense-based alignment system models morality relative to the observer. This way, we might end up in a situation where (as Spoony says) “To... orcs, these assholes who are kicking down their doors and killing their babies are evil!"

In a Sense-based alignment system, the structuring of morality as relative is based on different worldviews or “Senses of the world.” Each Sense generally summarizes a semiotic ideology, that is how a character perceives information, as well as how they ascribe value and derive meaning from their surroundings. As an alignment system is a moral codex, they do this with a particular focus on how characters read ethical behaviour into their actions and from those of others. They constrain, but do not prescribe, action based on Tenets.

For this post, I will provide a list of Seven Senses, describe their Tenets, and give an example of how each ideology allows its user to read ethical behaviour into actions. Next time, I will try to draw out how these Senses might aid players creating and resolving two distinct moral situations in play: the prisoner dilemma and divvying. Specifically, I will explore how evil might signify in the absence of an absolute using “The Seven Senses” as a sample model for a relativistic alignment system. When I finish, I plan on creating guidelines for players to create their own character Senses.

One final thing, before I list them: I must note that mechanisms for social perception are not exclusive to any Sense. Rather all types of Sense are available to player characters, but their character's Sense represents an exaggeration of some mode which typifies their responses.

The Seven Senses: Speaking Sense, Holistic Sense, Gut Sense, Animal Sense, Battle Sense, Money Sense, Common Sense, Insensible.

Speaking Sense (SS): Values mutual communication and literacy; good speech demonstrates good reason. Generally, the speaker's language (and language family) is considered “good.” For example, an elf who bases his morality on Speaking Sense would see Elvish, Fairy, and Wizardy speakers as good people (see Fig. 1.1). Elves typically get bonus languages for having high INT, and frequently intermingle with dwarves. Note that speaking more languages would allow a character of this type to understand more peoples empathically. Tenets of Speaking Sense include candor and contracts.

Fig. 1.1: Languages of the Land & Their Interrelations

To justify their behaviour, a Speaking Sense character might say, “I meant what I said,” or “Nobody talks to me that way,” or even “I was just following orders.” To condemn evil, an SS character might point to things said or communicated or to a lack of “good speech” (however the character defines that).

Holistic Sense (HS): Life is a system of relations and interconnections. A character with Holistic Sense tries to think of what their actions mean for the world or a local area as a whole, as habitats or ecosystems. Tenets of Holistic Sense might include gemeinschaft (community), harmony, or may represent a character who simply prefers a “bigger picture” sort of view.

To justify their behaviour, a Holistic Sense character might say, “I've restored balance,” “The Realm will be less troubled for my actions,” or “In the long run, it was the right thing.” To condemn evil, an HS character might decry the upsetting of a beneficial network, offense to a chosen higher cause, or a long-term judgment about the impact of an event on a personality.

Gut Sense (GS): Traditionally the basis of halfling morality, “Gut Sense” directly correlates gastronomy with moral potential. Halflings who use their mealcunning to track or consume things other than good food may become corrupted (Table: “Halfling Mealsense Corruption” not yet available). A halfling without Gut Sense has a +6 to resist food corruption, but cannot use mealcunning. Non-halfling peoples with Gut Sense also become subject to food corruption, but may gain mealcunning.

To justify their actions, a GS character might say, “But I did it in good taste” or they might convince themselves something is okay if it “doesn't leave a bad aftertaste” in their conscience. An evil person may be a “tasteless” or “rotten,” an eater of icky or strange things.

Animal Sense (AS): Animals tend to make sense of the world differently from people. The world to an animal is mostly about food, survival, and mating. Animals may or may not be territorial. Wolves, cats, and deer all have animal sense, though feral people might also adopt it.

Will an action serve them somehow in getting prey or otherwise guaranteeing survival? Might a person be possible competition for food or a mate? These are some questions that might occur to an Animal Sense character, though some are more eusocial than others. An Animal Sense character raised by wolves is going to act much differently, for example, than one who is obsessed by the order-driven world of ants.

Note that not all animals may use Animal Sense as their alignment.  A familiar, for example, may share alignment with its caster as a result of their telepathic link.

An AS character might justify behaviour by measuring it against the survival value of an action. They could condemn evil as that which impedes on their survival or that of a “pack” or “hive” if their Sense is based on a pack or hive animal.

Battle Sense (BS): This is a sense of the world based around a martial code. Be it complex as chivalry or Bushido, or simple as the rule of might, these characters make sense of the world through conduct on a battlefield. Paladins, for example, live famously complicated codes of honor.

A BS character will justify their actions against their code of combat, for example: “I defend the weak,” “He who raises a sword is willing to die by it,” or “A worthy foe should be granted reprieve.” They will condemn evil by standards meant for battle.

Money Sense (MS): For some, money determines right or wrong. This type of Sense might be common amongst merchants and mercenaries. Common tenets can be quite diverse, so long as they are currency-related. They might include “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “He who has the gold makes the rules.” A Money Sense character could be a greedy elf jewel miner or ascetic folk who count every penny they give away.

To justify their behaviour, a Money Sense character might say something like, “At least I have more (or less) money,” “I can always buy another,” “Down with the rich!”, or “At least I did (or didn't) steal my money!”

Common Sense (CS): Unlike its name suggests, common sense is neither truly common, nor is it truly a sense in the way taste, sight, or hearing are. Rather, it is more like an intuitive understanding of morality held by a group of folk. Tenets of common sense include self-preservation, the golden rule (“Do unto others”), evidence, social proof, and the right to agree to disagree. Folk morality is generally based on common sense. It's perfectly possible for two people using common sense to debate for hours and come to completely different conclusions.

Insensible (I): This describes an often single-minded, one dimensional sort of thinking that cannot be reasoned with. Unconscious people lose their sense and become Insensible. It might also describe people robbed of sense by e.g., being under the effect of a fear spell or compelled by a magical suggestion. Madmen, berzerkers, hurricanes, and golems might be Insensible.

An Insensible character is incapable of moral decision-making and judgment. Characters who return from this state will attempt to make sense of things as they would normally.

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