A Philosopher's Blog

Uncommon Commoners #5: An Unexplained Journey now available at DriveThruRPG

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2015


A Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure for 5th-8th level characters.


An Unexplained Journey is the fifth book (of seven) in The Uncommon Commoners campaign series. In this semi-epic campaign, the uncommon commoners will fulfill their destiny. Or die trying. Or both—if their destiny is to die trying.

Long ago, the pornography loving dragon Smut descended on the Sticky Mountains and laid waste to the humans of the lake and the dwarves under the mountain. Since then, people have trembled in the shadows of the Sticky Mountain. But, there is hope—a prophecy says that someday the dragon will be slain and that the King Under the Dirt will return to shower the people with gold.

Long after the dragon took up residence in the stickiest of the Sticky Mountains, Nimblee’s family was slaughtered after being expelled from their home city. On that day, Nimblee vowed revenge. This pledge of vengeance will place the uncommon commoners on a collision course with Smut. To reach the dirty dragon and exact revenge will require an unexplained journey that will pit the heroes against such foes as Joe Bitey, cave crickets, and talkative trolls.

The Uncommon Commoners #5: An Unexplained Journey is a Pathfinder Role Playing Game compatible adventure. It is intended for a party of 5th-8th level uncommon commoner characters. While the adventure is written to be humorous and fairly light, it is also designed to be suitable for serious game play.

Here are some of the features of the adventure:

  • Detailed color maps.
  • Fully developed NPCs, complete with detailed descriptions, backstories and motivations. And loot.
  • Full statistics are included for all encounters—no need to look up monsters.
  • New Magic Items (Dwarven Cooler, Ring of Visibility, Burglar Book, Burglar Mask, and Sneaky Pants).
  • Hero Lab Portfolio (free download).
  • 66 pages of adventure (includes maps)!
  • Joe Bitey!
  • Ted talking.


 Available  At

DriveThru RPG

Paizo Store


Hero Lab Files, Maps, Etc. See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Review of Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Posted in Book Review, Pathfinder, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 13, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Christopher Robichaud (Editor) $17.95 August, 2014

As a professional philosopher, I am often wary of “pop philosophy”, mainly because it is rather like soda pop: it is intended for light consumption. But, like soda, some of it is quite good and some of it is just sugary junk that will do little but rot your teeth (or mind). As a professional author in the gaming field, I am generally wary of attempts by philosophers to write philosophically about a game. While a philosopher might be adept at philosophy and might even know how to read a d4, works trying to jam gaming elements into philosophy (or vice versa) are often like trying to jam an ogre into full plate made for a Halfling: it will not be a good fit and no one is going to be happy with the results.

Melding philosophy and gaming also has a rather high challenge rating, mainly because it is difficult to make philosophy interesting and comprehensible to folks outside of philosophy, such as gamers who are not philosophers. After all, gamers usually read books that are game books: sourcebooks adding new monsters and classes, adventures (or modules as they used to be called), and rulebooks. There is also a comparable challenge in making the gaming aspects comprehensible and interesting to those who are not gamers. As such, this book faces some serious obstacles. So, I shall turn now to how the book fares in its quest to get your money and your eyeballs.

Fortunately for the authors of this anthology of fifteen essays, many philosophers are quite familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and gamers are often interested in philosophical issues. So, there is a ready-made audience for the book. There are, however, many more people who are interested in philosophy but not gaming and vice versa. So, I will discuss the appeal of the book to these three groups.

If you are primarily interested in philosophy and not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, this book will probably not appeal to you—while the essays do not assume a complete mastery of the game, many assume considerable familiarity with the game. For example, the ethics of using summoned animals in combat is not an issue that non-gamers worry about or probably even understand. That said, the authors do address numerous standard philosophical issues, such as free will, and generally provide enough context so that a non-gamer will get what is going on.

If you are primarily a gamer and not interested in philosophy, this book will probably not be very appealing—it is not a gaming book and does not provide any new monsters, classes, or even background material. That said, it does include the sort of game discussions that gamers might not recognize as philosophical, such as handling alignments. So, even if you are not big on philosophy, you might find the discussions interesting and familiar.

For those interested in both philosophy and gaming, the book has considerable appeal. The essays are clear, competent and well-written on the sort of subjects that gamers and philosophers often address, such as what actions are evil. The essays are not written at the level of journal articles, which is a good thing: academic journals tend to be punishing reading. As such, people who are not professional philosophers will find the philosophy approachable. Those who are professional philosophers might find it less appealing because there is nothing really groundbreaking here, although the essays are interesting.

The subject matter of the book is fairly diverse within the general context. The lead essay, by Greg Littmann, considers the issue of free will within the context of the game. Another essay, by Matthew Jones and Ashley Brown, looks at the ethics of necromancy. While (hopefully) not relevant to the real world, it does raise an issue that gamers have often discussed, especially when the cleric wants to have an army of skeletons but does not want to have the paladin smite him in the face. There is even an essay on gender in the game, ably written by Shannon M. Musset.

Overall, the essays do provide an interesting philosophical read that will be of interest to gamers, be they serious or casual. Those who are not interested in either will probably not find the book worth buying with their hard earned coppers.

For those doing gift shopping for a friend or relative who is interested in philosophy and gaming, this would be a reasonable choice for a present. Especially if accompanied by a bag of dice. As a great philosopher once said, “there is no such thing as too many dice.”


As a disclaimer, I received a free review copy from the publisher. I do not know any of the authors or the editor and was not asked to contribute to the book.

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Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on November 25, 2014

The most recent offering in Blackwell’s Philosophy & Pulp Culture Series is the appropriately named Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophy. I was offered a free copy in return for mentioning the book on my blog and I am making good on that deal. If time permits, I’ll write a review of the book as well.  I am not one of the authors and wasn’t asked to contribute, so there is no conflict of interest. Well, other than the free copy.

Here is the back cover info for the book:

“Does justice exist in the drow city of Menzoberranzan?

How does one cope with the death of a player character?

Is it ever morally acceptable to cast necromancy and summoning spells?

Is Raistlin Majere the same person over time?

Do demons and devils have free will?

First introduced by war-game enthusiasts Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons developed into a cultural phenomenon that continues to cast a spell on millions of gaming aficionados around the world. Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy delves into the heroic quests, deadly battles, and medieval courtly intrigue of the legendary role-playing game to probe its rich terrain of philosophically compelling concepts and ideas. From the nature of free will and the metaphysics of personal identity to the morality of crafting fictions and the role of friendship in collaborative storytelling,D&D players and gaming enthusiasts will gain startling insights into the deep philosophical issues that underlie a broad swath of role-playing tactics and strategies. Put the broadswords away and letDungeons & Dragons and Philosophy transport you across the philosophical divide.”


To answer the questions:

1. No. Or yes.  Traditional drow are always chaotic evil, so they have no justice. Except that which is dispensed by the adventurers who give them the deaths they really, really deserve. New drow can be any alignment, but tend to be evil and crazy. So, justice is possible, but usually not actual. But, in D&D justice is whatever the DM says it is.

2. Roll a new one.

3. Yes. Necromancy includes healing spells like cure light wounds (look at the spell descriptions). Healing people is morally okay, in general. Summoned creatures are (in the standard game) not permanently harmed by their battles. Also, most of the time they match the summoner in alignment and usually advance the cause of the alignment when summoned to fight. So, summoning them is fine. Plus, they are often things that really like to fight. In D&D that is most things.

4. No idea who that is. I’m getting vague memories about the Dragonlance books I never read, though.  I’ll go with the usual answer about games: whatever the DM says.

5. Depends on the DM. Metaphysical issues in RPGs are settled by the dungeon master. In my campaign, they get free will. So yes. For me. Some DMs take devils and demons to always be evil and without free moral choice. That is AD&D Monster Manual-they are always evil (lawful for devils, chaotic for demons). So no. For them. D&D metaphysics is easy.


Lessons from Gaming #1: Keep Rolling

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2014
English: Six dice of various colours. 4-sided ...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a young kid I played games like Monopoly, Chutes & ladders and Candy Land. When I was a somewhat older kid, I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and this proved to be a gateway game to Call of Cthulhu, Battletech, Star Fleet Battles, Gamma World, and video games of all sorts. I am still a gamer today—a big bag of many-sided dice and exotic gaming mice dwell within my house.

Over the years, I have learned many lessons from gaming. One of these is keep rolling. This is, not surprisingly, similar to the classic advice of “keep trying” and the idea is basically the same. However, there is some interesting philosophy behind “keep rolling.”

Most of the games I have played feature actual dice or virtual dice (that is, randomness) that are used to determine how things go in the game. To use a very simple example, the dice rolls in Monopoly determine how far your piece moves. In vastly more complicated games like Pathfinder or Destiny the dice (or random number generators) govern such things as attacks, damage, saving throws, loot, non-player character reactions and, in short, much of what happens in the game. For most of these games, the core mechanics are built around what is supposed to be a random system. For example, in games like Pathfinder when your character attacks the dragon with her great sword, a roll of a 20-sided die determines whether you hit or not. If you do hit, then you roll more dice to determine your damage.

Having played these sorts of games for years, I can think very well in terms of chance and randomness when planning tactics and strategies within such games. On the one hand, a lucky roll can result in victory in the face of overwhelming odds. On the other hand, a bad roll can seize defeat from the jaws of victory. But, in general, success is more likely if one does not give up and keeps on rolling.

This lesson translates very easily and obviously to life. There are, of course, many models and theories of how the real world works. Some theories present the world as deterministic—all that happens occurs as it must and things cannot be otherwise. Others present a pre-determined world (or pre-destined): all that happens occurs as it has been ordained and cannot be otherwise. Still other models present a random universe.

As a gamer, I favor the random universe model: God does play dice with us and He often rolls them hard. The reason for this belief is that the dice/random model of gaming seems to work when applied to the actual world—as such, my belief is mostly pragmatic. Since games are supposed to model parts of reality, it is hardly surprising that there is a match up. Based on my own experience, the world does seem to work rather like a game: success and failure seem to involve chance.

As a philosopher, I recognize this could simply be a matter of epistemology: the apparent chance could be the result of our ignorance rather than an actual randomness. To use the obvious analogy, the game master might not be rolling dice behind her screen at all and what happens might be determined or pre-determined. Unlike in a game, the rule system for reality is not accessible: it is guessed at by what we observe and we learn the game of life solely by playing.

That said, the dice model seems to fit experience best: I try to do something and succeed or fail with a degree of apparent randomness. Because I believe that randomness is a factor, I consider that my failure to reach a goal could be partially due to chance. So, if I want to achieve that goal, I roll again. And again. Until I succeed or decide that the game is not worth the roll. Not being a fool, I do consider that success might be impossible—but I do not infer that from one or even a few bad rolls. This approach to life has served me well and will no doubt do so until it finally kills me.


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Lawful Good

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 6, 2014
Paladin II

Paladin II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I have written in other posts on alignments, it is often useful to look at the actual world in terms of the D&D alignment system. In this essay, I will look at the alignment that many players find the most annoying: lawful good (or, as some call it, “awful good”).

Pathfinder, which is a version of the D20 D&D system, presents the alignment as follows:

 A lawful good character believes in honor. A code or faith that she has unshakable belief in likely guides her. She would rather die than betray that faith, and the most extreme followers of this alignment are willing (sometimes even happy) to become martyrs.

A lawful good character at the extreme end of the lawful-chaotic spectrum can seem pitiless. She may become obsessive about delivering justice, thinking nothing of dedicating herself to chasing a wicked dragon across the world or pursuing a devil into Hell. She can come across as a taskmaster, bent upon her aims without swerving, and may see others who are less committed as weak. Though she may seem austere, even harsh, she is always consistent, working from her doctrine or faith. Hers is a world of order, and she obeys superiors and finds it almost impossible to believe there’s any bad in them. She may be more easily duped by such impostors, but in the end she will see justice is done—by her own hand if necessary.

In the fantasy worlds of role-playing games, the exemplar of the lawful good alignment is the paladin. Played properly, a paladin character is a paragon of virtue, a word of righteousness, a defender of the innocent and a pain in the party’s collective ass. This is because the paladin and, to a somewhat lesser extent, all lawful good characters are very strict about being good. They are usually quite willing to impose their goodness on the party, even when doing so means that the party must take more risks, do things the hard way, or give up some gain. For example, lawful good characters always insist on destroying unholy magical items, even when they could be cashed in for stacks of gold.

In terms of actual world moral theories, lawful good tends to closely match virtue theory: the objective is to be a paragon of virtue and all that entails. In actual game play, players tend to (knowingly or unknowingly) embrace the sort of deontology (rules based ethics) made famous by our good dead friend Immanuel Kant. On this sort of view, morality is about duty and obligations, the innate worth of people, and the need to take action because it is right (rather than expedient or prudent). Like Kant, lawful good types tend to be absolutists—there is one and only one correct solution to any moral problem and there are no exceptions. The lawful good types also tend to reject consequentialism—while the consequences of actions are not ignored (except by the most fanatical of the lawful good), what ultimately matters is whether the act is good in and of itself or not.

In the actual world, a significant number of people purport to be lawful good—that is, they claim to be devoted to honor, goodness, and order. Politicians, not surprisingly, often try to cast themselves, their causes and their countries in these terms. As might be suspected, most of those who purport to be good are endeavoring to deceive others or themselves—they mistake their prejudices for goodness and their love of power for a devotion to a just order. While those skilled at deceiving others are dangerous, those who have convinced themselves of their own goodness can be far more dangerous: they are willing to destroy all who oppose them for they believe that those people must be evil.

Fortunately, there are actually some lawful good types in the world. These are the people who sincerely work for just, fair and honorable systems of order, be they nations, legal systems, faiths or organizations. While they can seem a bit fanatical at times, they do not cross over into the evil that serves as a key component of true fanaticism.

Neutral good types tend to see the lawful good types as being too worried about order and obedience. The chaotic good types respect the goodness of the lawful good types, but find their obsession with hierarchy, order and rules oppressive. However, good creatures never willingly and knowingly seriously harm other good creatures. So, while a chaotic good person might be critical of a lawful good organization, she would not try to destroy it.

Chaotic evil types are the antithesis of the lawful good types and they are devoted enemies. The chaotic evil folks hate the order and goodness of the lawful good, although they certainly delight in destroying them.

Neutral evil types are opposed to the goodness of the lawful good, but can be adept at exploiting both the lawful and good aspects of the lawful good. Of course, the selfishly evil need to avoid exposure, since the good will not willingly suffer their presence.

Lawful evil types can often get along with the lawful good types in regards to the cause of order. Both types respect tradition, authority and order—although they do so for very different reasons. Lawful evil types often have compunctions that can make them seem to have some goodness and the lawful good are sometimes willing to see such compunctions as signs of the possibility of redemption. In general, the lawful good and lawful evil are most likely to be willing to work together at the societal level. For example, they might form an alliance against a chaotic evil threat to their nation. Inevitably, though, the lawful good and lawful evil must end up in conflict. Which is as it should be.


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Neutral Good

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 15, 2014

My previous essays on alignments have focused on the evil ones (lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic evil). Patrick Lin requested this essay. He professes to be a devotee of Neutral Evil to such a degree that he regards being lumped in with Ayn Rand as an insult. Presumably because he thinks she was too soft on the good.

In the Pathfinder version of the game, neutral good is characterized as follows:

A neutral good character is good, but not shackled by order. He sees good where he can, but knows evil can exist even in the most ordered place.

A neutral good character does anything he can, and works with anyone he can, for the greater good. Such a character is devoted to being good, and works in any way he can to achieve it. He may forgive an evil person if he thinks that person has reformed, and he believes that in everyone there is a little bit of good.

In a fantasy campaign realm, the player characters typical encounter neutral good types as allies who render aid and assistance. Even evil player characters are quite willing to accept the assistance of the neutral good, knowing that the neutral good types are more likely to try to persuade them to the side of good than smite them with righteous fury. Neutral good creatures are not very common in most fantasy worlds—good types tend to polarize towards law and chaos.

Not surprisingly, neutral good types are also not very common in the real world. A neutral good person has no special commitment to order or lack of order—what matters is the extent to which a specific order or lack of order contributes to the greater good. For those devoted to the preservation of order, or its destruction, this can be rather frustrating.

While the neutral evil person embraces the moral theory of ethical egoism (that each person should act solely in her self-interest), the neutral good person embraces altruism—the moral view that each person should act in the interest of others. In more informal terms, the neutral good person is not selfish. It is not uncommon for the neutral good position to be portrayed as stupidly altruistic. This stupid altruism is usually cast in terms of the altruist sacrificing everything for the sake of others or being willing to help anyone, regardless of who the person is or what she might be doing. While a neutral good person is willing to sacrifice for others and willing to help people, being neutral good does not require a person to be unwise or stupid. So, a person can be neutral good and still take into account her own needs. After all, the neutral good person considers the interests of everyone and she is part of that everyone. A person can also be selective in her assistance and still be neutral good. For example, helping an evil person do evil things would not be a good thing and hence a neutral good person would not be obligated to help—and would probably oppose the evil person.

Since a neutral good person works for the greater good, the moral theory of utilitarianism tends to fit this alignment. For the utilitarian, actions are good to the degree that they promote utility (what is of value) and bad to the degree that they do the opposite. Classic utilitarianism (that put forth by J.S. Mill) takes happiness to be good and actions are assessed in terms of the extent to which they create happiness for humans and, as far as the nature of things permit, sentient beings. Put in bumper sticker terms, both the utilitarian and the neutral good advocate the greatest good for the greatest number.

This commitment to the greater good can present some potential problems. For the utilitarian, one classic problem is that what seems rather bad can have great utility. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” puts into literary form the question raised by William James:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

In Guin’s tale, the splendor, health and happiness that is the land of Omelas depends on the suffering of a person locked away in a dungeon from all kindness. The inhabitants of Omelas know full well the price they pay and some, upon learning of the person, walk away. Hence the title.

For the utilitarian, this scenario would seem to be morally correct: a small disutility on the part of the person leads to a vast amount of utility. Or, in terms of goodness, the greater good seems to be well served.

Because the suffering of one person creates such an overabundance of goodness for others, a neutral good character might tolerate the situation. After all, benefiting some almost always comes at the cost of denying or even harming others. It is, however, also reasonable to consider that a neutral good person would find the situation morally unacceptable. Such a person might not free the sufferer because doing so would harm so many other people, but she might elect to walk away.

A chaotic good type, who is committed to liberty and freedom, would certainly oppose the imprisonment of the innocent person—even for the greater good. A lawful good type might face the same challenge as the neutral good type: the order and well being of Omelas rests on the suffering of one person and this could be seen as an heroic sacrifice on the part of the sufferer. Lawful evil types would probably be fine with the scenario, although they would have some issues with the otherwise benevolent nature of Omelas. Truly subtle lawful evil types might delight in the situation and regard it as a magnificent case of self-delusion in which people think they are selecting the greater good but are merely choosing evil.

Neutral evil types would also be fine with it—provided that it was someone else in the dungeon. Chaotic evil types would not care about the sufferer, but would certainly seek to destroy Omelas. They might, ironically, try to do so by rescuing the sufferer and seeing to it that he is treated with kindness and compassion (thus breaking the conditions of Omelas’ exalted state).


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Neutral Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2013
English: Protester seen at Chicago Tax Day Tea...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote previously on the usefulness of Dungeons & Dragons alignments in discussing ethics in the real world. In that essay, I wrote about the lawful evil alignment. I now turn to the neutral evil alignment.

In the Pathfinder Role Playing Game version of the alignment, neutral evil is defined as follows:

A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with. She is out for herself, pure and simple. She sheds no tears for those she kills, whether for profit, sport, or convenience. She has no love of order and holds no illusions that following laws, traditions, or codes would make her any better or more noble. On the other hand, she doesn’t have the restless nature or love of conflict that a chaotic evil villain has.

Some neutral evil villains hold up evil as an ideal, committing evil for its own sake. Most often, such villains are devoted to evil deities or secret societies.

Neutral evil represents pure evil without honor and without variation.

This alignment, unfortunately enough, matches up quite well to some people in the real world. As the description above indicates, neutral evil people are completely selfish. It is important to note that this is different from having a sense of self-interest. The distinction is that self-interest means that a person takes into account his or her own interests when making decisions. A completely selfish person takes self-interest to an extreme, perhaps to the point where only her interests are regarded as having any value. Being self-interested is perfectly compatible with being good. In fact, a good creature would need a degree of self-interest or it would be engaged in wronging itself, which could be an evil action.

Interestingly enough, neutral evil actually has its own real-world moral theory, namely ethical egoism. This is the moral view that a person should do only what is in her interest. This is contrasted with altruism, which is the view that a person should at least sometimes consider the interests of others. There are, of course, degrees of altruism (and egoism). As might be imagined, the extremist form of altruism (always sacrificing all one’s interests for those of others) is an absurd position that could be seen as a form of evil given how the altruistic fanatic treats herself. More moderate altruism just requires at least not being totally selfish—which seems both reasonable and good.

Stupid neutral evil people are open about their selfishness and simply do as they wish. However, unless they are powerful or protected by powerful people, they would tend to come to a bad end. Neutral evil people who are not stupid and also lack the power to do whatever they wish with impunity tend to take one of two approaches.

The first is for the neutral evil person to conceal the fact that she is neutral evil. The classic example of this is the Ring of Gyges story in Plato’s Republic. Such neutral evil people are careful to maintain the appearance that they are not neutral evil and, provided that they have the skills and resources to do this, they can remain unexposed. Even if they are exposed, they sometimes have the ability to regain their mask and return to their evil actions in secret.

The advantage of this approach is that the neutral evil person is able to act in a selfish way in relative safety. The disadvantage is that maintaining the illusion of being not-evil can be costly and can impede the person’s ability to act on his selfishness. This is, however, a viable option for those who are evil and capable, yet lack absolute power.

The second is for the neutral evil person to present their selfishness as being virtuous rather than a vice. That is, rather than concealing their evil behind a mask of false ethics, they endeavor to convince people that their selfish behavior is actually ethically correct.

Ayn Rand is perhaps the best known philosopher who took this approach. She argued that selfishness is a virtue and that altruism is wrong. Of course, the altruism she attacked was the absurd extreme altruism presented above, rather than the sort of moderate altruism that is embraced by actual human beings. Unfortunately, the sort of extreme ethical egoism she endorsed has been embraced, most famously by certain folks in the American Tea Party as well as those who have manipulated this movement.

In the United States, there has been a concerted and brilliant effort to present supporting altruism as supporting vile socialism or communism and of wanting to rob the “job creators” of the wealth they have earned. That is, being altruistic and wanting to assist others is cast as vile villainy. There has also been an equally brilliant effort to cast anyone who benefits from public altruism as being lazy, thieving and parasitic. Naturally, racism has been cleverly exploited here as well.

This has been a rather successful campaign in that many Americans now regard those who support public altruism as exceeded only in wickedness by those who might receive it—especially if those who receive it are minorities.

In contrast, those who have great wealth that has been acquired from the labor of others are cast as having made it on their own, despite the massive government subsidies and state support that helped make their success possible. Ironically, those who are the most selfish are cast as the most virtuous and even those they shameless exploit rush to their defense.

While this alignment can be quite beneficial to the neutral evil person, it is a rather corrosive alignment. After all, neutral evil types are essentially damaging to society. Unlike the lawful evil types who believe they have a stake in the success of society, the neutral evil types are selfish to the degree that they only consider what they regard as their own self-interest.

While an enlightened neutral evil person might get that she has an interest in society, this sort of enlightenment is actually contrary to the alignment. After all, an evil person who sees value in society would be lawful evil rather than neutral evil. As such, while good people have a clear interest in combating neutral evil people, so too would the lawful evil people. In a sense, the neutral evil person is everyone’s enemy—even other neutral evils.

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Chemical Weapons & Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 2, 2013
English: British Vickers machine gun crew wear...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”

While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter.  As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.

Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).

A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.

Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.

Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.

The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.

Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.

The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.

Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.


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Lawful Evil

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2013
Book cover, Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gyga...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am a professional philosopher, my view of ethics was significantly shaped by the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. This role-playing game provided players with a choice between the alignments: neutral, lawful neutral, chaotic neutral, neutral good, neutral evil, lawful good, lawful evil, chaotic good or chaotic evil. The player’s choice of alignment determined how she would (or at least should) play her character. As might be imagined, morality tends to be a significant part of fantasy role-playing games. After all, the fantasy genre has traditionally been about the epic battle between good and evil (or law and chaos).

While my training in philosophy has provided me with a robust set of ethical theories ranging from moral absolutism to moral nihilism, I still find the AD&D alignment system rather useful for describing people and their actions. In my own case, I find the alignment system a handy organizer. In terms of speaking with other gamers, it is a handy way to get across my view of an actual person. For example, if I say “what he did was chaotic neutral at best” a fellow gamer knows just what that means. Or should.

One interesting aspect of the alignment system is that it applies to organizations and not just individuals.  This, interestingly enough, includes entire nations. While an entire nation will generally not be monolithic in its alignment (after all, evil nations have their plucky rebels and good nations have their malign plotters), a country can be described generally in terms of one of the alignments. In the fantasy settings of role-playing games, this alignment is usually set by the rulers. For example, a country ruled by a council of evil necromancers would be evil. As another example, a country ruled by a paladin queen would be good. Real life countries follow the same model. That is, the effective alignment of the country is set by the alignment of those in power. To use the obvious example, during WWII not all Germans were evil, but Germany acted as a rather evil nation. To be fair, most nations tend to be evil and, more specifically, lawful evil.

Pathfinder, which is a current variant of Dungeons & Dragons, defines the alignment of lawful evil in the following way:


A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order, but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.

This reluctance comes partly from his nature and partly because he depends on order to protect himself from those who oppose him on moral grounds. Some lawful evil villains have particular taboos, such as not killing in cold blood (but having underlings do it) or not letting children come to harm (if it can be helped). They imagine that these compunctions put them above unprincipled villains.

Some lawful evil people and creatures commit themselves to evil with a zeal like that of a crusader committed to good. Beyond being willing to hurt others for their own ends, they take pleasure in spreading evil as an end unto itself. They may also see doing evil as part of a duty to an evil deity or master.

Lawful evil represents methodical, intentional, and organized evil.


This definition nicely captures the behavior of most countries in terms of how they operate (or desire to operate). In regards to the lawful aspect of the alignment, it is obvious that a country would tend to be lawful. That is, they have a set of laws aimed at creating order and expect the citizens to be loyal to the rulers. Appeals to the value of tradition, be they religious or social, are commonly used to persuade the citizens to maintain the existing order. Hierarchy is, of course, essential to the state as is a willingness on the part of the citizens to follow the laws.

Anarchists and other thinkers have argued that the state is essentially evil—interestingly enough because the state is supposed to be opposed to freedom and dignity. While it could be argued that evil is not a necessary quality of a state, the rulers of states always seem quite ready to restrict freedom in order to maintain security and order. There is also the obvious fact that the rulers of states generally act to take or do what they wish, albeit within the limits of the rules (even if they must create new rules and laws to allow this behavior—note how the Obama administration carefully argues that drone strikes and Prism are both legal).

As the description notes, some lawful evil people (and nations) profess to have a better sort of morality and use this to claim that they are good people, especially when engaged in activities that are rather clearly not good at all. Interestingly enough, the lawful evil type tends to avail herself of utilitarianism. The idea is rather straightforward: a person can claim that the seemingly evil acts being committed (like drone assassinations, domestic spying, enhanced interrogation, denying women rights, allowing pollution, and so on) are not evil because they serve the greater good. Or, rather, the greater good as they see it. Perhaps they truly believe they are on the side of the angels even while they are using the devil’s tools.


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Free Pathfinder Adventures for December #4: Ril’s Lesser Sanctum

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for 3rd-5th level characters.


This adventure will be free on Amazon from 12/22/2012-12/26/2012! Merry Christmas!

This adventure is the second in the Rils’ series. It is preceded by the Tomb of Rils.

The brave adventurers travel to a desert land in search of the Lesser Sanctum of Rils. There, they will face the dangers of the desert before entering the sanctum. Within its dark chambers, they will face terrible monsters, cunning traps, and one of Rils’ failed students. Those strong enough to survive will leave the desert land laden with treasure and new knowledge. Those that fail shall leave their bones and flesh to the whims of the necromancer.

This adventure includes new monsters, new spells and new magic items.

Available now on Amazon.


Rils’ Lesser Sanctum PDF

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See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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