Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Orc Baby Dilemma or Whether Good Has To Be Nice

 This is something that popped into my head over the week and I felt the need to write about it.

For those not in the know, the "Orc Baby Dilemma" is an old chestnut of D&D lore. Just to explain the scenario requires some setup.

First we have alignments. You may have heard of them. There are all sorts of "alignment chart" memes out there with the 3 x 3 grid of alignments. In D&D, the 2 axes of alignment are Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil, with Neutral in the middle of each. So you can be Lawful Neutral or Neutral Good, along with Chaotic Evil and so on.

Next we have the paladin class. This character class has several special powers, but in order to maintain them must maintain a Lawful Good alignment. Which tends to make them unpopular among certain Dungeon Masters. For one thing, the special powers have the potential to make exciting encounters deflate as the party can now steamroll over them. The other issue is that the player is so dedicated to keeping their Lawful Good alignment that they often don't bite at all of the adventure hooks that the DM presents.

The Orc Baby Dilemma then exists as a brute force method to force the paladin to "fall" and lose their powers. The premise is simple: The party has probably killed all of the orcs at an encampment/dungeon lair and as they are looting, they encounter an orc baby. And the DM asks the player if they kill the orc baby.

There are two possible outcomes.

1) The paladin refuses to kill the baby orc. But since it's an orc, it's bound to grow up to become just as evil and marauding as its parents. The paladin loses their powers since they failed to stop the potential evil from happening.

2) The paladin kills the baby. The paladin loses their powers because they have harmed an innocent, who has done no wrong.

To be clear, this is a Stupid DM Trick. It's not terribly smart or clever and only exists to smack around players and their characters.

But it does bring up perspectives on alignment in an interesting way.

One of the things that's been debated for almost as long as alignment has existed is exactly what alignment is. The two main schools of thought are that 1) Alignment is about your behavior and 2) Alignment is about your position relative to cosmological forces.

Most discussions lean on the first school, that alignment is about behavior. If you are Good-aligned, then you are a good person. If you stop acting like a good person, you cease to be of Good alignment. That's one of the things that enables the Orc Baby Dilemma to work.

But alignment entered the D&D game through the inspiration of the Elric stories by Micheal Moorcock, in which the forces of Law and Chaos are in eternal struggle, and as D&D's cosmology expanded, the idea of a cosmological origin (or at least reflection) of alignment makes a lot of sense. There are many spells and items that have specific effects that depend on the user or subject having a specific alignment.

In this model, what determines your alignment is the faction you've chosen to support when Law and Chaos, and/or Good and Evil do battle with each other. It's also useful because one of the core activities of D&D is violence, and killing is not considered a "nice" thing to do. Being aligned with the Forces of Good does not require you to be nice. You may not even by required to be particularly good. Just so long as your actions advance the cause of Good in the world.

This is the point where I started feeling smug about how I had figured things out, but then the Orc Baby Dilemma popped into my head. And then I deflated.

Because in the cosmological interpretation, the Orc Baby Dilemma is not a dilemma at all. There's a clear answer. Kill the baby.

The Forces of Good have little interest in whether or not a paladin is nice, so whether or not the baby is innocent is not a real consideration. The paladin has presumably killed a large number of orcs of many ages. So the only standard is whether the action harms the Forces of Evil.

That thought disturbed me for a while.

If there's a saving grace here, it's that in the cosmological interpretation, the requirements of behavior are fairly loose. While there's no barrier to killing the baby, there's also no strong incentive.

I think that's my next question: What behavior or actions would cause a paladin to fall (or any other person to change alignment) under the cosmological interpretation?

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