D & D as Literary Framework

One of my favorite examples of unintended literary framework is the Dungeons and Dragons game system.  D & D ends up being useful for understanding or highlighting aspect of character in a work (rather than aspects of plot, theme, or anything else).  Of particular use is the the alignment system.  It’s obviously not a perfect system,  but it does serve to highlight some of the conflict and undertones in texts and media.

Some of the other facets of D & D can be illustrative as well.  One does gain a richer understanding of the difference in combat styles between Gimli and Legolas (from Lord of the Rings) in trying to map a set of Third Edition featsonto them.  Understanding that Mohinder Suresh (from Heroes) keeps failing sense motive skill checks highlights a character flaw.   And an understanding of class (or profession) can be occasionally quite useful.  Evidence for this point: Buffy (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), as a Ranger, gains a new chosen enemy as the show progresses and she ‘levels up.’  Similarly,  the bravery others feel when in the presence of Angel (from Buffy and Angel) can partly be explained by the aura of courage that paladins possess.  But all these aspects of the D & D system are somewhat less universally applicable than the alignment system.

The D & D alignment system has two axes, each divvied into three sections.  One axis is divided into evil-neutral-good, the other is chaos-neutral-law.  The first step in understanding a character is placing them on this three-by-three grid.  So, Buffy is clearly chaotic good, while Angel is lawful good.  Dream of the Endless (from the Sandman series of comics) is most probably lawful neutral, and Destruction of the Endless is neutral good.  The Cider House Rules can be summarized as ‘a young man’s journey from lawful good to neutral good.’

Having placed characters in the grid, the use of this framework becomes apparent, as we see some underlying tensions.  Part of the reason Buffy doesn’t take well to Watcher’s Council intervention in her life is that they are clearly very very lawful.  Part of the reason Angel is sometimes stiff is that he still wants to obey rules (or even just wants there to be rules).  And, of course, one of factors contributing the tumultuous nature of Angel and Buffy’s relationship is a fundamental disagreement in alignment.

Dream has difficulties in his duties because he is lawful.  In order to fulfill his role properly, he (and, arguably, all of his siblings) should really be neutral along both axes.  It’s a similar story with Destruction: the difference between what his alignment is and what his job required became untenable.  And their difference in approach to how each resolved this conflict is in keeping with their respective alignments.

One of the most interesting applications of the D & D alignment system is Jack Bauer (from 24),  where it’s hard to pin down exactly what his alignment is.  Clearly, Jack is not evil, as his actions and goals are notably selfless.  It’s less clear that he’s good, but I think he is.  He has a sort of ends-justify-the-means mentality, but he’s only actually mean to bad guys, and tries to save as many lives as possible.  So, is Jack lawful?  He works for an agency of law, is fiercely loyal to his family and American ideals, and will orders from the president of the U.S.  On the other hand, he doesn’t really care about rules per se, only using the law when it suits his objectives, and frequency expressing disdain for the established hierarchy.  In a way, Jack ‘averages’ out to be neutral good.  But that implies some ambivalence toward law and chaos, or some attempt to balance them — and Jack is nothing if not forcefully opinionated.

With Jack Bauer, one can make convincing arguments for him being either chaotic good or lawful good.  This highlights both the fact that he is an interesting and complex character and the fact that the D & D alignment system can’t explain everything.  Yet, even in the system failing, we get some definition of Jack’s character: loyalty to people, family, and country, but not to rules or law-for-law’s-sake.  The application of this framework yields interesting results.  Which is why I like it as a literary theory.

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2 Responses to “D & D as Literary Framework”

  1. Chris Says:

    That reminded me of this (from Lore of Brunching Shuttlecocks):
    A fifth-level paladin drives his car to the repair shop.

    He gets out and says to the mechanic “It’s really weird. Normally I fight for justice and righteousness, but every time I get in this car I have this incredible urge to run over old ladies, drive way past the speed limit, and pick up hitchhiking demons. Can you help me?”

    The machanic looks the car over and says “Yeah, I see what the problem is. Your alignment’s off.”

    There are probably some interesting cases in protaganist/antagonist situations in the framework. Chaotic good vs. lawful evil is easy (Robin Hood/Sheriff, or any other revolt against an unjust tyrant), and Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Evil is pretty cliche too. Can you think of any good examples of, say, Lawful vs. Lawful or Evil vs. Evil?

  2. oneirichaberdasher Says:

    Well, Lawful versus lawful would be any courtroom drama — indeed it’s constructed so that many characters have to be lawful. If you win in the eyes of the law, then you’ve won. A lot of courtroom drama movies add some depth by having the protagonists be Lawful Good and the antagonists be lawful evil. Courtroom TV dramas can have an ensemble protagonist cast, representing a spectrum on the good-evil axis.

    Actually, war movies may also be conflicts of lawful versus lawful, especially those movies that show the enemy soldiers as very similar to the nominal protagonists.

    Choatic versus chaotic would be, let’s see … Mad Max, maybe. Certainly other post-apocalyptic movies, and probably a host of random bad barbarian movies.

    Good versus good would be many sort of political dramas. Everyone’s a patriot, and fighting for his or her constituency, but folks disagree as to means and sometimes need to squabble over a limited budget or make compromises.

    Evil versus evil might be gangster movies or The Sopranos. The protagonists often end up as somewhat likeable or sympathetic, but are still evil in a D & D sense. It’s possible that some comic book antiheroes trend too far from good and actually end up evil. Perhaps the most famous example of an evil character fighting against other evil characters might be the story (or one version of the story) of Dr. Faustus.

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