Wednesday 29 September 2010

E. Gary Gygax, Social Psychologist

For my 100th post please allow me to cross the streams of my professional and hobby lives.

Gygax's view of values and morality, Players' Handbook, 1978:

For most of my readership this needs no explanation (but please look here if it does.)

Now. The major model of human values  in psychology research today is Shalom Schwartz's circular model, developed in the mid-1980's. The methodology is a questionnaire where people are asked to rate which principles they personally hold most and least important in life. The position of those principles (values) on the circle is derived from statistical analysis of how answers tend to be similar or different across respondents.

While people and countries differ in which values they hold important, values that are close to each other on the circle usually are ranked high or low together. Likewise, values opposite to each other tend to have a negative relationship, so that people who value one set of principles highly, usually value the opposing set of principles less.

By now there are hundreds of studies using this model (including some from my own lab) conducted across scores of different countries. In the diagram below, the smaller labels are more specific values, larger labels describe groups of values, and the 4 labels on the corners represent the largest-scale value groupings.

So on one axis are "good" people who put helpfulness, justice and equality first, versus people who put their own achievement and power first (Gygax's core definition of evil, although later editions leaned more toward a caricature of evil aligned beings as intentional sadists). The other axis separates "lawful" people who put social order and humility first, from "chaotic" people who put freedom, new experiences, and pleasure first. Hmmm.

It looks like Gygax got at least a seven-year head start on psychology here, with a model of human motivational ideals pulled out of his head that gives basically the same results as hundreds of international surveys.

So the two-axis AD&D system is a great model for capturing the main ways people and countries are different from each other in their guiding principles. Why, then, do so many old-school revivalists disdain alignment, or reduce it to a simpler system? Why does 4th edition D&D seriously simplify the alignment diagram, making lawful a subset of good and chaotic a subset of evil?

I have a few possible answers - that is, reasons the two-axis alignment system often doesn't work in games - which I'll try to describe in the next couple of posts.


  1. I'd been surprised how well Moral Foundations Theory could be made sense of in terms of AD&D alignments as well.

    While I'd just as soon do without alignment period, I don't have in reference for the single axis vs. two axis, myself.

  2. Heh yeah - I'm almost certain there's more than one research group trying to connect the dots between morality and the values model.

    MFT can account for good (harm, fairness) and law (authority, loyalty, purity) - in fact if you see those five slices on the right in the circle you can fairly easily assign one of those foundations to each one. I think where the values approach wins out is accounting also for non-"moral" motivations, the usually selfish pursuits of power, pleasure, and personal freedom.

    As I argue in part of a book I'm currently writing, moral laws and emotions usually need to weigh in on the side of those right-hand motivations - lawful and good - because raw self-interest can easily motivate people to pursue the goods on the left hand of the diagram.

    Anti-moralities that glorify and universalize the left-hand values, like Objectivism, Nietzsche's or de Sade's philosophies, only arise when it's felt that morality has become too dominant in society.

  3. I think the big problem with the two-axis alignment system, at least as it relates to 3E, is that it's too hard coded into the rules. There are so many spells and magical effects keyed to alignment that it makes it less of a roleplaying tool and into just one more thing to min-max about your character.

    That, and the fact that across editions that use it, despite the loose structure given in most descriptions of what each alignment means, players and DMs seem to always take a hard line fundamental view of how each alignment should act.

    So simple Law-Neutrality-Chaos works best for me, if I use alignment at all. The Law-Chaos/Good-Evil system may model actual behaviors and social systems well, but in play many people forget that they are guidelines, rather than Commandments about how to play your character the way you want.

  4. I don't think many people disdain alignment in principle, just alignment as a mechanic. If it has mechanical consequences, those may not fit with your own setting, and if it's just a descriptor, then you can probably get by with a sentence of background and not worrying about a rule for it.

  5. So the two-axis AD&D system is a great model for capturing the main ways people and countries are different from each other in their guiding principles. Why, then, do so many old-school revivalists disdain alignment, or reduce it to a simpler system?

    Said without snark or facetiousness: maybe because D&D doesn't need a game mechanic that captures that sort of information?

    The original three-fold model essentially works as a white hat/black hat thing and so has some utility. But the nine-fold model doesn't have that easy use.

    Oh, I think another problem is that Good & Evil get confusing with regard to history, laws, and whatnot, in a way that the much more abstract Law & Chaos don't.

  6. The original three-fold model essentially works as a white hat/black hat thing and so has some utility.

    I like the Moorcock/WFRP 1e vibe that Law is just as creepy as Chaos, but in a different way. One of the few things I really don't like about Moldvay Basic is the conflation of Law/Chaos with Good/Evil ... in my current campaign, the Invincible Overlord would be considered very Lawful but not at all good, and Elves would be considered very Chaotic but not at all evil (well, maybe a little) by D&D standards.

  7. The collapse of gygax' complex moral map down to hasbro's simplistic linear scale simply mirrors the trend of American political and moral discourse. Was a time when conservative, intolerant, and authoritarian were not closely associated; just as progressive, tolerant, and liberal were not interchangeable symbols. In a very weird way, the ninefold ad&d alignments provided a framework for moral philosophy that has otherwise been absent from mainstream conversation and curricula.

    1. Not everyone would agree with your assessment that they are now closely related.

    2. Sigilic -- I couldn't have said it better myself. And Hasbro dumbed it down so they could market it to younger age groups and make more money. Original 1st edition AD&D was played mostly by college kids, AD&D today is geared more toward the middle school set, probably because marketing research indicated this was the better direction. Dumbing things down almost always means more profit, whether it's RPGs or movies or even politics itself. Looking at it this way, what you said is dead-on accurate.

    3. BTW none of that was to imply that only middle schoolers play 4th edition today, or only college students played 1st back then. All the editions had players of various ages obviously, and I'm not knocking anyone for playing one system or another (in fact a lot of the best campaigns are/were composites of more than one AD&D system). What I AM saying, however, is the later editions were DESIGNED to be more accessible to younger players, and deliberately simplified for this reason. A good DM could probably run an effective campaign with any of the systems and no system is entirely worthless (or entirely flawless). But I would argue that 1st edition is the "purest" system from a strictly RPGer perspective. Maybe because 1st edition was designed by actual GAMERS (Gygax, Arneson, and was loosely based on a pre-existing system called Chain Mail ... whereas the later systems were mainly just rewrites of the original by guys in suits who had only a casual grasp of what the game was about, and who were mainly concerned with "marketing" the game.

      So ... WotC swallowed TSR, and Hasbro swallowed WotC, and with each change of the guard, the system became more and more about clichés. Because clichés are popular, and popular = profitable. The Dumbing Down of America (and this means everything from RPGs to political thought) is based on the idea that Simple Sells. Cardboard cut-out stereotypes never go out of style ... the lawful good cowboy in the white hat, the chaotic evil comic book villain, et cetera. Why do you think 4th ed. cut out all those pesky "complicated" alignments, like Lawful Evil and Chaotic Good?

      Sigilic was 100% right about Hasbro's newer scale mirroring the change in political/moral thought. The reason behind both is the same : profit via. a sustainable business model. Anyway, just my two cents. Keep the change ;-)

  8. Interesting post! Thinking about it, I wonder how much pondering on AD&D alignment as a kid might have inspired some of my later interest in psychology.

    Sigilic, that's an interesting thought. I suspect that WotC was trying to simplify both for play reasons and to scale back to a middle ground between AD&D and Moldvay or Mentzer D&D.

  9. Thanks for all the comments. Some of them line up with what I'm planning for the next posts ... some of them inspired or clarified what I was thinking ... I guess you'll just have to figure out which was which!

  10. I think the key reason for the unpopularity of the alignment system is the good/evil labels. Just too loaded.

    I think Palladium did it a bit better with labels like "selfish" and "opportunist". Less loaded.

  11. As a Social Psychologist myself, I'm kind of surprised... it does indeed look like a loose match of systems! Nice observing.

    About alignment itself, I think it proves difficult to work with in practice, especially a two axis system, as long as the system logic of slaying monsters and gaining treasure expects every hero to have some chaotic something in them.

  12. Really interesting - looks like the chemistry to Gygax's alchemy.

    But. I know you didn't ask for people to weigh in on their objections to alignment, but for me there are 2 real killers in the alignment chart, which prevent me from using it.
    1. EGG's is monocultural in a way the Schwartz's is not, with its good/evil/law/chaos language. My objection here is not against playing more-or-less-Christian devilhunting games - that's fine and EGG's alignment chart works for it. My objection here is that the kind of DnD I want to play is out and proud about being whatever you can imagine in your fantasies, and I can imagine a whole lot more than this schema when it comes to working cultures and their possible discontents. I guess what I'm saying is that modeling a system for possible values usable in fiction actually might be more complex than observing values in fact.
    2. "neutrality:" perfect hedonistic selfishness is neutral, which pushes chaos and evil toward some kind of farther out position where really only supernatural or bizarre etic explanations lurk.

    ...seriously old post/argument, I know. Fascinating, though.

    1. I know, alignment and the multiverse seem a strangely specific intrusion of setting into AD&D ... curse the paladin.

      On true neutrality, keep reading my old posts with the alignment tag. I have a different view of it than most.

  13. Alignment also conflated personal behavior with preferred social order. In reality, a judge can be a slob, an anarchist can be self disciplined, and so on.

  14. We always used alignment, but only as a guideline. The trouble came when you tried to have concrete rules about it.

    It required some creative roleplaying for certain spells and characters, but got around foolishness like "all orcs show up on 'detect evil.'"

  15. In my experience, one reason people have problems with the alignment system is that they want evil acts to not be counted as 'Evil': either their character's actions or their own.