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Old Screeds

Good, Evil, and Nonlethal Attacks in Labyrinths & Liontaurs

Prioritizing Good - In my version of Dungeons and Dragons, it is better to be good than evil.

I've treated at length, in a two-part series, the options for making "good" choices in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1.0. Go, click on that link, to read more. But in this screed, I want to talk about how I would handle alignment if I were making my own version of D&D ... which I AM doing, so this is not merely hypothetical. My new game is called Labyrinths & Liontaurs. You can read my manifesto on its design as well. In essence, I think that the game mechanic of levelling can be handled better to create more options while pushing players to be more balanced and to make choices that encourage rounded gameplay (not just combat *cough*PathfinderSecondEdition*cough*).

But in addition to improvements in game design and gameplay, I have added to L&L some elements of my own diktat. From the name of the game, you see that I have added liontaurs, as a player race, no less. I've added skills just because I thought they were nifty. And I have this to say about alignment, from my manifesto:

Traditional D&D was created as a murder-hobo game. Wandering "adventurers" are home invaders who bash in the door, kill everyone inside, and take all their wealth. Then do it again in the next room. And for some reason this is OK because these "heroes" are invading "dungeons" populated with "monsters." Now, I've been in the hobby since it started; I remember using the OD&D booklets, and I remember the exciting times when "Advanced" D&D was released. Sadly, that means I also remember too well the moral panic against D&D: the stupid accusations that a game with devils meant RPGers were Satanists; that when your character died, weak-minded players would end up committing suicide; not to mention the Tom Hanks movie that demonized the game; the printed propaganda that they handed out in churches; and more. All of that was just pure bunk, of course, but there was a kernel of truth in there: Some players have enjoyed playing evil characters, honoring evil gods, and telling stories in which the "heroes" were the ones committing atrocities.

And even if you did play true heroes who show mercy and spare the lives of defeated foes, then what? D&D has its own prisoner dilemma: unless there's a civilization with a criminal justice system somewhere close by, either you slay defeated foes in cold blood or let them go to do more evil another day. For a hobby that's supposed to be fun, rewarding mercy with poor choices seems harsh. Is this the ethical morass we want in our gaming?

Heck, I recall debating my "D&D morality" with my own father, a devout Catholic. Those were his words. Back then, I argued that a D&D morality was a good thing, inspiring teamwork and creativity and collaborative storytelling. I did not mention that D&D could also include immoral stories. I did not mention the time my friend, angry at an innocent NPC, decided to "gut the wench" -- and when we challenged him on it, declared, "fine, I only HALF-gut her." We laughed at the absurdity of that, but in truth we were pretty tame compared to RPGers who embraced misogyny and rape, torture, and casual murder as part of the stories they told.

My question is this: Should RPGs embrace all styles of play, both good and evil, presenting all options as equally valid? D&D and Pathfinder implicitly do. But as for me, since L&L is the game I want to play, I am including options and mechanics to discourage evil play and to reward those who choose to be heroes. Good implies a respect for life, and a reluctance to end it except when unavoidable. Evil implies a delight in cruelty, a wanton disregard for life. In Labyrinths & Liontaurs, there are good options to defeat foes without killing, and using those options is rewarded. I offer ways to deal with prisoners other than death or freedom -- by using spells, oaths, and diplomacy to curb bad behavior and even to alter alignment. You don't have to be a murder-hobo.

Here are a few of the concrete ways I am implementing this policy and embedding it in game mechanics.

I'm using a mechanic similar to Pathfinder's Hero Points, but my version, called Lionheart Points, are recoverable daily. If you roll well for your ability scores, you get fewer; if you roll poorly, you get more. The average PC has 14. And your daily recovery varies with your alignment:

  • If you are good, each morning after resting, all of your lionheart points are regained.
  • If you are neutral with respect to good and evil, you regain only half of your lionheart point total each day (minimum 1), because your selfishness diminishes you.
  • If you are evil, you regain one lionheart point per day, because you lack a true lion's heart.

In keeping with the lion's heart theme, NPC liontaurs are explicitly stated to never be evil. Sure, PCs can do what they want, but I think that, given the name of the game, this sends a message as well.

For my version of the sorcerer class, I have used Pathfinder bloodlines, but deleted the devilish, demonic, undead, and abberation bloodlines, because they were all too evil-ish. My draconic bloodline sorcerers can only descend from metallic (good) dragons, because "Base and foul chromatic dragons are not cross-fertile with other races." However, I do have a Yuletide Bloodline, which is as jolly and nice as you could imagine. Here's one of that bloodline's abilities, gained at level 1.

Knowledge (Hearts) (Sp): As a move action, you can look into a creature's heart and determine if he or she is naughty (evil) or nice (not evil), as well as the strength of the creature's aura (see detect evil). You can do this a number of times per day equal to your character level, with a range equal to 10 times your character level in feet, or through some form of scrying. In addition, when you touch an unconscious and helpless creature you know to be naughty for one minute, you can change his or her alignment permanently to good or neutral (50/50 chance, unknown to you). The creature remains lawful, neutral, or chaotic, and their attitude toward you remains as it was before the change. Prerequisite: good alignment.
One might argue that changing an enemy's alignment is too powerful for first level. But I say, look, the ability requires a foe be helpless and unconscious for a minute. In that time, you could KILL the foe. So if I provide a specifically good way to dispose of an enemy without killing, what's the harm? Since the creature's attitude toward you does not change, it is fine. More than fine, it is GOOD.

Also consider two feats I am adding to the game. Merciful Attack lets you do nonlethal damage with a normally lethal weapon, eliminating the normal -4 penalty for attacking those smaller than yourself, and when using a weapon already designed to be nonlethal, the attack now threatens on a 19 or 20, and hits for triple damage on a confirmed crit. Knock Out is a feat that grants +1 to to hit and to damage when you are making nonlethal attacks -- this feat stacks with itself up to four times over a character's career, rewarding those who try to not kill anybody.

I'm also using spells to facilitate my "Good is Better" philosophy. Here are three:

School universal; Level inherent 6 (you have to be a 12th level rogue to cast it)
Casting Time 1 hour; Components V; Range touch; Effect 1 helpless creature; Duration instantaneous; Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance none
Description: After you have a long conversation with a helpless creature, the creature's alignment changes: It matches your own on the law / chaos axis; and if it is evil and you are not, or if you are good and it is not, its alignment now matches your own. The creature resents this, despite embracing its new outlook, and whatever its final alignment, its disposition towards you becomes hostile.

School universal; Level natural 12 (you have to be a 12th level druid to cast it)
Casting Time 10 minutes; Components V, S, DF; Range touch; Targets one helpless creature; Duration instantaneous; Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance no
Description: Cast on a helpless creature, this spell changes the target's alignment: It matches your own on the law / chaos axis; and if it is evil and you are not, or if you are good and it is not, its alignment now matches your own. This spell also instills in the target a devotion to nature and a love of the natural world. Nature's Call does not change the target's attitude towards you.

School universal; Level divine 11 (you have to be an 11th level cleric to cast it)
Casting Time 1 minute; Components V, S, M (100 gp in special candles and incense), DF (gold manacles worth 1,000 gp); Range touch; Targets one unconscious creature; Duration instantaneous; Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance no
Descripton: Cast on an unconscious creature that is bound in sacred keyless manacles, your divinity intervenes to convert the creature: It matches your own alignment on the law / chaos axis; and if it is evil and you are not, or if you are good and it is not, its alignment now matches your own. This spell also converts the target to your religion, that is, it reveres your god above all others. Conversion does not change the target's attitude towards you. The manacles open by themselves when the spell is concluded.

So, yes, I am definitely putting my finger on the scales here. And I do so because of my own personal philosophy and preference. That's my decision, and so be it. If you do not like it, there are plenty of other games out there.

Photo credit, with thanks: I've seen this artwork in many places: here, here, here, and here, to name a few. My thanks to whoever owns this image, and please let me know if my use here infringes.

Home | This screed was written on 25 December 2022, based on my ongoing work developing Labyrinths & Liontaurs.