Friday, October 1, 2021

(Planescape) Planes of Law

 I feel like a lot of my commentary for Planes of Law is just going to repeat what I wrote in my Planes of Chaos post - it's weird that this game is set in heaven and hell. It's weird that real-world gods are showing up in D&D (this time the Egyptians and the Chinese). It's weird that the best parts of this book could just be ported over as locations in an ordinary fantasy world and work even better than they do in their original context.

If there's a difference between the two boxed sets, I'd say that Planes of Chaos was more willing to take the big swings and commit fully to its high fantasy conceits (one of its adventures had you seeking out a book that contained every lie ever spoken by a mortal creature, which is exactly the sort of absolutist, system-transcending magic that justifies an outerplanar setting), but Planes of Law is more disciplined and thematically coherent.

And the degree to which that was an intentional choice, given the alignments involved, or simply me subconsciously projecting the alignments onto the text is a question that's just going to have to be left open. My current theory is that I've witnessed a real phenomenon, but it's a coincidence.

Which is as good a transition into talking about alignment as I'm ever going to get. AD&D's alignment system is the foundation of the Planescape setting. And as far as foundations go, it's just about the shakiest it's possible to imagine. Alignment purports to categorize a person's (or creature's or society's) moral worldview using two independent axes. Characters are either "Lawful" or "Chaotic" and distinguishing between the two can sometimes be tricky, but it broadly makes sense. People who care about society's rules are Lawful and people who do their own thing are Chaotic, and just don't think too hard about people whose "own thing" involves following an elaborate personal code or societies whose "laws" are extremely permissive (or even transgressive - "her only law is that the strong should survive" is an actual quote).

But while the Law vs Chaos axis can sometimes lack nuance, it is not nearly as bad as the other axis - "Good" vs "Evil." And I just hate it so much. It's the worst fucking thing. I know that I sometimes use the word "evil" in my critiques, but it's not the words I object to. I'll call a book "evil" when I think it does active harm to the people who read it, but I also think of books as an action taken by their authors. I wouldn't extend that label to the authors, because it's my firm belief that evil is something you do, not something you are. It might be possible that a person could commit so many vile acts that evil became an indelible part of their identity, but even then I'd hesitate to call the person evil. Partly because it's prejudicial, but mostly because it lets the evil-doer off the hook. If you are evil, then it's not surprising when you do evil. In fact, you could hardly be expected to do anything else.

And calling people "good" is scarcely better. There are people who habitually perform good actions, and who have developed a reputation for those habits, but how many times do we have to be betrayed by "good" people and institutions committing terrible deeds in the dark before we realize that "good" isn't a state of being you can simply achieve and then forget about. To paraphrase Solon of Athens, "count no one good until they are dead."

Or, in the case of Planescape, even that may be premature. Because AD&D's alignment system attaches the labels of "Good" and "Evil" directly to people, and it gets as weird and uncomfortable as you might expect - in both directions. 

The "evil" people are evil because they just like hurting people and take pleasure in deceit and betrayal. It makes Baator, the Plane of Ultimate Law and Evil completely incoherent. There is an elaborate system of ranks, and advancement is often through assassination. Judges and guards take bribes. Lawfulness is just as much a part of their identity as evil, but no one ever thought to make assassination or bribery illegal. What it should be is Law as a force for evil, made all the more terrible because it is perfectly incorruptible. What we got was an ostensibly lawful plane that was an exemplar of all the ways law could be subverted and corrupted. A lawful plane that was in many ways the antithesis of law.

Funnily enough, I can pinpoint the exact sentence where Baator went wrong - "Note that these spirits are not here because they're being punished."

Ooh, this is such a complex idea. On the one hand, it's something that flows inevitably from the game's premise. All of the planes are independent and coequal. You go to the Lawful Evil plane because you are Lawful Evil, and it would be weird if the Lawful Evil rulers of that plane punished people for being Lawful Evil. However, "punishment," as a concept, is right in Lawful Evil's wheelhouse.  I don't want to imply that punishment is inherently evil (because I don't have the philosophical vocabulary to even begin that discussion), but I think it's pretty undeniable that punishment may allow the scope for evil, while still working in the confines of a lawful society. You can't injure, confine, or degrade random citizens, but you can do that and more to criminals, and punishment doesn't become any less lawful for being disproportionate. 

Not that I'm saying Baator should have been the plane of punishment. The whole reason it was renamed from The Nine Hells in the first place was to downplay associations with the Christian afterlife. However, it could have been the plane of oppression or the plane of conquest or the plane of unforgiving purity. If the point of a Lawful Evil afterlife is to reward people for being Lawful Evil, then the plane itself should reflect the activities and principles that Lawful Evil people value. To them, it's a reward to be the oppressors, it's a reward to be the conquerors, it's a reward to be the elect that gets to cut away the impure. But no matter how you slice it, it is never going to be a reward to be turned into a Lemure (barely sentient blob-devils that have no individual identity and are constantly being tortured).

I think the reason Baator can't have a mission is because a mission might accidentally do some good. Or, at the very least, be aided by individual virtue. If Baator is punishing people, it might sometimes punish the guilty. If it's a conquering army, it will benefit from its soldiers' loyalty and courage. Baator isn't evil because they do evil deeds. Rather Baator is evil, and as such, whatever deeds they do, you gotta take 'em and evil-fy them at least 25%. It's wicked to take a bribe, so their guards take bribes, never mind that the thing they're guarding is usually some torture chamber or another, and that letting people out, even for money, is a kindness and letting people in, even if they're not there to rescue anybody, will disrupt the torture. The guards can't do their duty and they can't believe in their work, because they are evil. And that's why Baatezu start off as blob creatures and not grim-faced soldiers in matching uniforms. Because when you are evil, you are maximally cruel at all times, even when doing so would violate your mission statement.

Although, I suspect that "evil" in AD&D means "doing harm for no reason." As soon as you have any reason at all, that automatically bumps you up to neutral at worst (and I've been doing my best to avoid talking about the Neutral alignments, because they're a whole thing). 

Which brings us to the other half of the "Good vs Evil is a reckless idea for an alignment axis" discussion . The plane of Arcadia, which lies between Lawful Good and Lawful Neutral, has a whole plotline that is like the worst case scenario for a "good is something you are" ethic.

One of Sigil's factions, the Harmonium, has set up shop in the Land of Perfect Good and they're running a little experiment - they're trying to see if they can convert Chaotic characters to the Lawful alignment by heavily regimenting their daily schedules . . . involuntarily . . . and punishing noncompliance with brutal beatings . . . that sometimes lead to death. As a consequence of this experiment, one of the layers of Arcadia (and I can't tell you what a "layer" is or why they exist, because every one I've seen so far has seemed completely pointless and could easily be interpreted as just being a location within a plane) has fallen off into Mechanus, the Lawful Neutral plane.

As a plot, it's aggravating because it has so little to say for itself. I'm not sure it even really understands that kidnapping people, keeping them prisoner, and beating them with clubs is an evil act - "Their methods of securing this good are so draconian that the land was pulled away from the plane of good toward a more evil tone (in that neutrality contains more evil than good)." The word "evil" is used, but it's hedged. It's not "a more evil tone," it's just evil. It's not neutrality that is evil by comparison. It's just evil. "They watch these good creatures wither and die away from their homes, and simply go out to get more." Aaagh!

Maybe it's a triangulation thing. The plane of Arcadia is good and the Harmonium is evil, so the average of those two is neutral. Except we can say with confidence that the Harmonium is not capital-E Evil, because the petitioners of Arcadia have the innate ability to detect alignment at will and they attack evil creatures on sight. Setting aside the question of whether it's ethical to launch unprovoked attacks on someone based on their alignment (maybe it's impossible to be evil-aligned without committing at least one deed worthy of the death penalty . . . except that's never been how alignments have been presented), we can at least establish that members of the Harmonium are canonically Lawful Neutral at worst.

It's a weird thing about alignment. It purports to be an objective measure of morality, but it doesn't ascribe moral weight to specific actions. The morality of an act is highly contextual, based on who's doing it and why. In Mount Celestia, the Lawful Good plane, there's a group of people called the Order of the Planes Militant, and their goal is to capture territory from Arcadia and the Outlands and shift it into Mount Celestia. And I guess this is something they're allowed to do, despite the fact that losing planar territory is apparently distressing to people. The Harmonium was more concerned with concealing they lost a layer than they were with hiding the literal atrocities that led to that loss. Mechanus is working hard to keep the layer, despite the fact that Mechanus is made up of giant gears and Nemausus is a forest. The planes are infinite, but also land has value, and as little sense as that makes, it still means that taking something of value is, by definition, stealing. And that's not even mentioning the Order of the Planes Militant's habit of launching "raids" on the Lower Planes. You can draw a distinction between aggressive violence and violence in defense of others, but trying to distinguish between aggressive violence and preemptive punitive violence strikes me as splitting hairs.

The hardest part about reading these old Planescape books is that alignment is the only thing that's really wrong with the setting (well, aside from the difficulty it sometimes has wrapping its head around the idea of infinity - there are exactly 8 mobile castles on all the numberless cube-worlds of Acheron), but it is also the setting's foundational idea. The only thing wrong with the setting is its foundation. Almost everything else about it is great.

Clockwork universe where machine spirits regulate the motion of continent sized gears - Great!

A pastoral paradise where the rivers turn at right angles and the native plants are arranged with geometric precision - Great!

A galaxy of floating iron cubes that are constantly clanging into each other and where the inhabitants adapt by building underground bunkers from which to wage a never-ending war - Great!

Having to fit these worlds in a 3x3 ideological grid, when 2/3rds of the options are variants of "we think good things are good" and "we think bad things are good" - a nightmare.

I don't even know what the take-away should be here. I really enjoyed reading this boxed set . . . aside from the parts that gave me extreme soteriological vertigo. So maybe just enjoy it without thinking too hard about it - adventure in worlds that break the "standard fantasy" mold, heroically raid the hell-realm where nobody's being punished and everyone wants to be there . . .

Aw, fuck, I'm doing it in the recap. I guess I can't deny the urge to dig deep into Planesecape's guts and assemble a more coherent setting. My enjoyment of the books has to be viewed in that context. I like a lot of what I'm seeing, but the one thing I'd change about it is the foundation.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Storm Kings of Arcadia. They're just these four regular people (two are women, but all bear the title of "King") who live in the sky and control the weather. Since each one only contorls one aspect (Wind, Clouds, Lightning, or Rain), they have to negotiate and work together. This probably won't be how all of Ukss' weather works, but I can see it being an interesting hook for a single region.