Thursday, October 23, 2014

D&D Alignment: Three Hearts and Three Lions

If you're a D&D player who hasn't read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953), you should go find a copy and fix that as soon as possible. It's short, it's easy to read, and it's very explicit and dense with proto-ideas that fed into the original version of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, I dare say that pound-for-pound (or word-for-word) it's the single densest, most rewarding work to provide background for the milieu and set pieces of the D&D game.

Just one part of that is the origin of the D&D alignment system, in its most coherent state of Law-Balance-Chaos. For the purposes of commentary, criticism, teaching, and scholarship (and so the larger internet community can find it) I present the key passages below. Read this, and then the next step would be start reading some classic Michael Moorcock stories about Elric, which expands on the system (with an overview here).

Chapter 3

He let the dwarf growl on for a long time without learning much. Hugi wasn't very bright, and a backwoodsman as well. Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were so only unconsciously and some, witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faeries, Trollheim, and the Giants -- an actual creation of Chaos. Wars among men, such as the long-drawn struggle between the Saracens and the Holy Empire, aided Chaos; under Law all men would live in peace and order and that liberty which only Law could give meaning. But this was so alien to the Middle Worlders that they were forever working to prevent it and to extend their own shadowy dominion.

The whole thing seemed so vague that Holger switched the discussion to practical politics. Hugi wasn't much help there either. Holger gathered that the lands of men, where Law was predominant, lay to the west. They were divided into the Holy Empire of the Christians, the Saracen countries southward, and various lesser kingdoms. Faerie, the part of the Middle World closest to here, lay not far east. This immediate section was a disputed borderland where anything might happen.

Chapter 11

He lost sight of the camp as he wandered on, trying to fit what he had learned into a pattern. This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more... animistic... expression. Or, wait a minute, didn't it in his own world too? What had he been fighting when he fought the Nazis but a resurgence of archaic horrors that civilized men had once believed were safely dead?

In this universe the wild folk of the Middle World might be trying to break down a corresponding painfully established order; to restore some primeval state where anything could happen. Decent humanity would, on the other hand, always want to strengthen and extend Law, safety, predictability. Therefore Christianity, Judaism, even Mohammedanism frowned on witchcraft, that was more allied to Chaos than to orderly physical nature. Though to be sure, science had its perversions, while magic had its laws. A definite ritual was needed in either case, whether you built an airplane or a flying carpet. Gerd had mentioned something about the impersonal character of the supernatural. Yes, that was why Roland had tried to break Durendal, in his last hour at Roncesvalles; so the miraculous sword would not fall into paynim hands...

The symmetry was suggestive. In Holger's home world, physical forces were strong and well understood, mental-magical forces weak and unmanageable. In this universe the opposite held true. Both worlds were, in some obscure way, one; the endless struggle between Law and Chaos had reached a simultaneous climax in them. As for the force which made them so parallel, the ultimate oneness itself, he supposed he would have to break down and call it God. But he lacked a theological bent of mind. He'd rather stick to what he had directly observed, and to immediate practical problems. Such as his own reason for being here.

Chapter 12

There were still many miles of wilderness to travel on the other side of the range, but she had seen a few clearings, isolated farmsteads, and hamlets. "And where'er several men dwell, if they be not evil doers, will belike lie hallowed ground -- a shrine, if naught else -- which most o' the creatures that dog us dare no approach closely."

"But in that case," Holger asked, "how can the Middle World even think of seizing human land?"

"By help o' beings who need no fear daylicht or priestcraft. Animals like yon dragon; creatures wi' souls, like bad dwarfs. However, such allies be too few, and mostly too stupid, to have more than special use. Chiefly, methinks, the Middle World will depend on humans who'll fight for Chaos. Witches, warlocks, bandits, murderers, 'fore all the heathen savages o' the north and south.  These can desecrate the sacred places and slay such men as battle against them. Then the rest o' the humans will flee, and there'll be naught left to prevent the blue gloaming being drawn over hundreds o' leagues more. With every such advance, the realms of Law will grow weaker; not alone in numbers, but in spirit, for the near presence o' Chaos must affect the good folk, turning them skittish, lawless, and inclined to devilments o' their own." Alianora shook her head, troubled. "As evil waxes, the very men who stand for good will in their fear use ever worse means o' fighting; and thereby give evil a free beachhead."

21 comments:

  1. @ Delta:

    It is an excellent book for source material. My impression when reading it was the faeries were the model for the D&D elf, much more so than Tolkien.

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  2. I'm pretty sure I have a battered, unread copy of this that I picked up at this or that bookstore for two bucks. Now I'm going to have to try and move it closer to the top of my monolithic "must read" list.

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  3. Yeah that's a fun one to read. Its been a couple of years. The Broken Sword by the same author is my favorite of the two. Elves are nasty in that one as well. I don't remember the Chaos/Law thing. Moorcock has said that The Broken Sword influenced Elric so I wonder if that's where he got the Law/Chaos thing.

    There may even be battle material in The Broken Sword to set up for Book of War!

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    1. You know, I was doing a Google image search today and discovered "The Broken Sword" by accident, also saw that quote by Moorcock, and immediately jotted it down as something to get and read. It sounds really enticing. Thanks for the second call for that!

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    2. 2 things. One is that Moorcock writes about both books in Wizardry and Wild Romance. He focuses mostly on The Broken Sword. Stormbringer, the sword, is inspired by that book.

      2nd, The Broken Sword has 2 versions of it out there. There's the original and the revised version. The revised version from what I've read is pretty different. I've only read the 1rst version and it seems pretty good to me. Moorcock writes about this also in Wizardry and Wild Romance.

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    3. Of great, that's good info. Thanks for telling me about the two versions, that's the kind of thing that always aggravates me if I don't find out until later.

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    4. Here is Moorcock's great review of The Broken Sword. Its the same one in Wizardry and Wild Romance.

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jan/25/featuresreviews.guardianreview18
      "Poul Anderson's classic fantasy, The Broken Sword, knocks The Fellowship of the Ring into a cocked hat, says Michael Moorcoc"

      I think he writes more about it in the book but I know that this is at least in it.

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    5. Wow, what an awesome review. Thanks so much for the link. Now I truly *must* read this.

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  4. When I shared this on the Facebook 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons group, the first comment to pop up was this:

    "Ernest Gary Gygax Jr.: This novel gave my dad so many cool ideas. The early Greyhawk elves were much more like these than the more modern concept... The troll - wow."

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  5. I always remember it as the source of the D&D troll, paladin and alignments. The latter got a bit muddied when Holmes (via Strategic Review) introduced the 5-way system and then AD&D the 9-way system. I still prefer the original 3.

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    1. The 3 way alignment Law, Chaos and Neutral still exists in Swords + Wizardry, which is 0e modernized. Just looked at page 28 in Swords and Wizardry Complete and there are only 3 of them.

      Or you can even go further back and do like Crypts + Things does and gets rid of alignment totally.

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    2. I agree, I also think that the original 3 alignments are the most coherent, most payable, easiest for new players to parse, makes alignment languages sensible, etc. Plus there's actually a corpus of top-notch prior literature to give it depth and context -- hence this post. It's one of the reasons I fell in love with Original D&D even though I only got my hands on the LBB's in 2007.

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  6. Hey what's the LBB? Are they the old white books:
    http://www.wired.com/2013/09/dungeons-and-dragons-white-box/

    my old time dnd knowledge only goes back so far...

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    1. That's right -- Little Brown Books in the Original D&D boxed set (1974). Never had them until the last 10 years, but now they're my favorite version to play. It does take some interpretation and filling-in-gaps but the DM, but in many ways it's more streamlined, clearer intent, and invites changes easily. It makes it feel like "you can do this".

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    2. Interesting. I have to wonder how different it is from Swords and Wizardry. SW is supposed to be Oe made modern and more playable. I actually like SW better than 1e and onward. Good stuff. I still like my Fiend Folio and DM Guide though.

      Crypts and Things is in the same vein. Its cut Tolkein out of the equation and focuses on only humans

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    3. I've been at a table with an SW book but haven't researched it deeply. I'll trust that it's reasonably close in intent, but OD&D probably has some more flavor baked into it (stuff that nowadays would trigger more copyright disputes). I'm also always glad to have my Monster Manual (mostly just a compilation of all the monster bits scattered in different places in OD&D) and DMG (for all the background essays on running a campaign... etc., etc.). If you can get the OD&D LBB's I bet you'd really like seeing them.

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  7. you can get the Swords and Wizardry Complete PDF for free here:
    http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/86546/Swords-and-Wizardry-Complete-Rule-Book

    I guess I can save my pennies and get the deluxe OD&D set sometime. It'd be fun to look through. I've thought about getting Chainmail and running the same scenarios side by side with Book of War to see how the outcomes turn out differently.

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    1. Cool, thanks! I really wish the OD&D books were available inexpensively online (they used to be some years ago). It's almost like there's conspiracy because everyone would flock to that if it were available. (Almost.)

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    2. I wish they were too. The "Deluxe" versions put out recently make me wary. I have to wonder if the art gets changed what else gets changed? Probably hunt down the originals someplace without the dubious alterations.

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    3. Yeah, I would totally recommend that.

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