Saturday, January 7, 2023

(D&D 3rd) Book of Exalted Deeds

 At the end of my last post I predicted I would despise Book of Exalted Deeds (James Wyatt, Christopher Perkins, Darrin Drader) and, look, "despise" is a strong word. There were things that I liked. Some of the art was really nice. The monster chapter was, like, 90% on point. There were some gems among the spells and magic items. I can definitely see myself playing a Swanmay or a Skylord. . .

Now that I'm writing it out, this all seems like aggressively faint praise on my part, but I feel like it's important to start with praise because I'm not at all mad at the authors. I'm certain they are better than this book, and the real error was simply making it in the first place.

It's just hard for me, because the emotion I'm feeling now isn't any kind of hate, but also "I didn't hate it" feels like a less straightforward statement than it did with Book of Vile Darkness. Let's say that Book of Exalted Deeds frustrated me.

Much of that frustration centered around this book's forced parallelism with Book of Vile Darkness. BoVD had Dark Speech, an ancient primordial language that communicated only evil concepts and would kill whoever attempted to utter it without the proper training. Book of Exalted Deeds, by contrast, had the Words of Creation, an ancient primordial language that communicated only good concepts . . . and would kill whoever attempted to utter it without proper training. This kept happening. Warrior of Darkness prestige class vs Annointed Knight prestige class. Archfiends vs Celestial Paragons. Corrupted Spells vs Sanctified Spells 

That last one was especially egregious. "Corrupt Spells" "take a terrible toll on the caster. "Sanctified Spells" are powered by willing self-sacrifice. The mechanics for the two types are 100% identical - cast the spell and then at the end of the duration, take ability point damage. Of course, "Ability Damage" is theoretically abstract enough that you could argue that, say, Wisdom and Charisma damage is fundamentally different than Strength or Constitution damage. But in order for that theory to pan out, the two magic types would have to be consistent about their costs. I didn't do a full analysis and comparison, but a random sampling suggests that each type is more or less random, with the main difference being that Book of Vile Darkness' 3.0 rules will deal 3d6 Constitution damage, whereas Book of Exalted Deeds has enough 3.5 experience to simply say "you die."

Plus, they aren't so much different in presentation as they are different in spin. Why cast a spell so powerful it will overwhelm you and damage your body when you could simply sacrifice your body's health to power an unusually strong spell? It's almost as if attaching a health cost to a spell doesn't particularly incline it to either good or evil.

If this pair of books is in any way forgivable, this kind of bullshit is at the heart of it. Forget "good" and "evil," the alignments are "shiny" and "heavy metal." Holy swords gleaming with sunlight, unicorns, fluffy white clouds, and the sound of trumpets against blood-dripping bone scythes, skeletal horses, evil weather 😈and the wail of a guitar. That could work. I know, because I've played Brutal Legend. I've used Abyssals as the villains in an Exalted game. You will never hear me complain about well-executed shallowness.

But this here, the clumsy parallelism between "good" and "evil" is the bad kind of shallow. Probably because it clings to the notion that it's actually about good and evil. Oh, we're talking about morality as a cosmic force? Capital "G" Good exists and does good in the universe? It doesn't just oppose capital "E" Evil, but is a distinct primordial phenomenon? Wouldn't that make it real awkward to talk about Ravages and Afflictions?

What are Ravages and Afflictions, you might ask. That's easy. They're poisons and diseases. Full stop. The book pretends they're different, but that's a lie. The book just fucking lies to the reader in the most transparent way possible. They use the exact same mechanics. Even moreso than corrupt and sanctified spells. The book says a Ravage is an analogue for a poison, and that it uses the poison rules, and that it does ability damage like a poison, but then also that it's a different thing entirely.

Liar! Liar, I say!

The thing is, some of the Afflictions are actually pretty interesting as magical diseases. They seem to be keyed off the Deadly Sins. Come down with a case of Pride in Vain (by ingesting something - ???) and you'll become obsessed with status, and as it progresses, you'll just start staring at yourself in the mirror (taking continuing Charisma damage while this is going on). The lust-themed one is especially nasty, because it can kill you with Constitution damage (it "causes insatiable sexual desire while preventing any possible fulfilment of that desire" which strikes me as a particularly agonizing way to die). I'm not sure how amplifying a victim's sin to dangerous levels advances the cause of good, but if you made them as amoral as regular diseases, they'd be an interesting addition to a setting (though maybe don't use Raging Desire).

But they're not diseases, they're Afflictions, and thus the supposed difference is that they only affect Evil (aligned) targets. And here's where the books' shallowness becomes something sinister, because I have no fucking idea what that's supposed to mean. Book of Exalted Deeds is no help at all with this, but even Book of Vile Darkness leaves me wanting. Who gets to have an Evil alignment and who is just an unpleasant Neutral that does unpleasant things? You go down and read the list of evil actions, asking yourself "does this merit dying of fatal priapism" and maybe you can get there with something like murder or damning souls, but then "casting evil spells" feels awfully tautological, and theft seems disproportionate, and their chosen example for bullying is "a ten-year-old-princess who forces bards to sing of her beauty or else they face the wrath of her tyrannical mother (the queen)" and there's an awkward moment where you contemplate the fact that this bratty child may fall on the bottom third of the 3x3 grid and thus be vulnerable to Haunting Conscience, where if she is unable to make two DC 16 Fortitude saves in a row, she will eventually become so wracked with guilt that she falls into a nightmare-filled coma. Because it's entirely unclear whether an Evil alignment represents terrible deeds done in the past or merely the potential for terrible deeds, hypothetically. Are you neutral until you commit your first murder or is having a general openness to committing a murder, should the need arise, enough to push you over the edge?

It's easy for me to square the circle because my position has always been that alignment is bad and bullshit like this is inevitable if you leave it in the game. But the book takes alignment seriously, and it is not up to the task it has set itself. The introduction asks the famously flame-war-provoking question, "Is there any hope for the orc whelps in the stronghold, or should we slaughter them too?" And while it, thankfully, comes down against slaughter, it frames sparing orc children in terms of the threat they pose, and not any sort of naive innocence. No indication of what age they become susceptible to ravages and afflictions. Afflictions themselves are so slow-acting that it is pure coincidence when they affect an active threat.

So, if you think about it, if you are "good," then an affliction is a weapon with perfect target discrimination - ideal for genocide (though admittedly, you'd put yourself at risk without proper protection, but not your nation or your religion, if you deployed it without official authorization).

Okay, that got a little dark, but Book of Exalted Deeds never quite articulates a vision of Good that is distinct from "Evil that aims." I said in the previous post that an Evil attack spell is one that remembers the target has a specific anatomy, and here the distinguishing characteristic of a "good" attack spell is that it only damages your enemies. 

Well, okay, only Evil targets, which does exclude certain classes of enemy. Your citadel of ultimate Good is going to woefully unprepared for attack by constructs or mind-controlled animals, for example. And maybe you're merciful enough that you don't want to use lethal force to stop an attack by someone misguided, yet pure of heart. But mostly your "good" spells have the drawback of working only on the people you are actively trying to hurt. 

Which isn't so much a drawback as an immense tactical advantage that even Evil people could appreciate. You're burning someone alive but leaving your allies unscathed. Useful for a crowded battlefield. But the most insidious part of good spells is the certainty you have with each kill. You know that the target must have done something to deserve it, because if they didn't deserve it, the spell wouldn't have worked.

It's unnerving to have so much clarity around something so vague. How does the spell know? I mean, magic, obviously, but what, you're shooting a laser with a built-in detect alignment? Maybe the holy energy is inimical to evil, but surely that only makes sense for beings suffused with evil energy, like demons and undead. You're just using a holy spell on some guy and in the space of a second it evaluates his whole life? Why is the magic substituting for the caster's judgement?

And that, I think, is the main flaw of Book of Exalted Deeds. It's got this moral cowardice that doesn't appreciate that the complexity and fragility of goodness is a feature, rather than a bug, so it often comes across as admiring the martial strength of evil. "If you use disease as a weapon, that's an evil act, but it's also really effective, so I wish the good side had something like it" - hence Afflictions.

Towards the beginning, there's a section called "Means and Ends" and it says "Good ends might sometimes demand evil means. The means remain evil, however, and so characters who are serious about their good alignment and exalted status cannot resort to them, no matter how great the need." And I can almost respect the refusal to sacrifice principle to mere expediency . . . except that just a little bit down the page, the section labeled "Violence" that starts with the sentence, "Violence is a part of the D&D world and not inherently evil in the context of that world."


I'm no longer an absolute pacifist, but the absolute berserk hypocrisy of this section still hits me as hard as it did in the early 2000s. Like, the rules about having just cause and not attacking helpless foes are well-taken, even if it gets a little hair-raising with "the mere existence of evil orcs is not just cause for a war against them, if the orcs have been causing no harm." (If they aren't causing harm, how the fuck do you know they're evil.) But juxtapose the circumstantial permission for violence with the absolute purity demanded not even one page earlier, and it becomes obvious that you're not talking about ethics, you're talking about gameplay.

Violence is inherently evil. It's not even a particularly complex question. If you are doing violence, you are attempting to damage the body of another living being. Take you categorical imperative and apply it to the act of sticking a sword in someone's guts. If you can do it for a good reason, you can do it for a bad reason. Yet, somehow ethical discussions about violence always seem to bundle it up with its context. Murder is always wrong, but self-defense is a duty.

Young me, the pacifist, would have left it there, pointing out that the only difference between murder and self-defense is motive and circumstances. However, these days I do agree with drawing a distinction between murder and self-defense, and that distinction is motive and circumstances, things that also apply to every evil action you might be tempted to do. What, you can't lie to the murderer about the whereabouts of their potential victim because every lie undermines faith in universal truth, but you can hit them in the head with a lamp and what matters is the thing you were trying to accomplish because nobody's going to try and universalize that into a philosophy of might makes right. Okay, let's do the categorical imperative thing - Lying is always wrong, but counter-intelligence can be justified if true information would be used in a harmful way and mere omission would tip the attacker off.

Of course, if D&D alignment had any explanatory power at all, this would be a classic case of Lawful versus Chaotic Good.

LG: "This line of thinking treats the purity of a good character's soul as a commodity . . . it is not a personal sacrifice, but a concession to evil, and thus unconscionable."

CG: "Violence against evil is acceptable when it is directed at stopping or preventing evil acts from being done."

LG: What?! How does that contradict what I just said?

CG: You said the ends can never justify the means, but I just gave an example of some good ends and the evil means they justify. 

LG: But "the cause of good expects and often demands that violence be brought to bear against its enemies."

CG: Why am I not surprised that the one form of wickedness that you're willing to indulge just happens to be the one that lets you coerce others into obeying your arbitrary rules?

LG: Arbitrary rules?! Would someone who was being arbitrary swear a vow of chastity?

. . . and so on. The temptation of violence is that it is the ultimate context. If you ignore violence, nothing else is possible. Thus, if someone uses violence against you, your only hope of resistance is to somehow be better at violence. No other form of activity has that property. You can't force someone to agree to a dance-off if they're bad at dancing, at a riddle contest if they don't know any riddles, but if you attack someone, they're in a fight whether they like it or not. It even lets you "win" at non-violent contests, just by eliminating the competition. Ever play a 4X game and go to war to prevent the AI from winning a cultural victory? Same thing.

Which is why it is such a favored tool of evil. The only quality you ever need to cultivate is excellence at the very thing that gives you maximum scope for cruelty. Get good enough at hurting people and you will always get your way.

It's funny, but if I were to try and give a workable definition of the difference between good and evil, I'd say that good makes space for weakness. Primarily in the arena of violence - good won't make you go to war to correct an injustice, even if they are certain to win - but also in other contexts - good will forgive debts if you get too sick to repay them, or in the dance contest, good will celebrate creativity and enthusiasm, even if you aren't fit or flexible enough to do the complicated moves. Which means that good's most characteristic quality is a lack of easy clarity. You have a benevolence for all living things, but every individual you meet is going to be on a different path. They will have different strengths and weaknesses, and consequently different needs. If you want to do good by someone, your first step it just to try and understand. And understanding always begins in ignorance.

Maybe that's just evidence of my chaotic nature, though. I don't trust the urge to substitute your judgement with hard and fast rules. I understand the vertigo that comes with the assertion that what is wrong in one situation may be right in another, and I can see how clarity can be comforting, but I'm suspicious of a categorical imperative that praises big, strong heroes like the police, the military, the protagonists of most stories, and the player characters when they get into a kick-ass action scene, but condemns the weak and fearful when they try to find alternatives. Say "violence is wrong in all circumstances" and you'll get, "what, so you don't support the troops (or the king, or the paladins, or whatever)" Say "lying is always wrong" and the authorities will say, "we agree, that's why we never do it, now tell us the truth or things will get ugly. " How can I trust any ethical argument that always seems to flatter power?

Which is kind of what I feel like this book is doing. It says, "Lawful Good characters by no means have a monopoly on goodness." And I'm like, who ever thought that in the first place? Then I have to look at the rest of this book, and its talk about martyrs and oaths saints and the virtues of poverty and forgiveness, and the lip service to CG and NG starts to make a certain sense. "Most Exalted Good" in this book's language means anodyne non-denominational pop-culture Christianity. If Book of Vile Darkness was the D&D your conservative parents thought you were playing, then Book of Exalted Deeds is the D&D you told them you were playing. It is possible to play a capital-G Good character without upsetting the status quo. Your characters are still going to go into dungeons to slay monsters. You're never going to encounter anything as challenging as an Oath of Veganism or a God of Democracy. The only orcs you can't kill are women and children.

This is now officially my longest post. I actually finished the book about a day and a half ago, and most of my time since has been spent either writing or thinking about what I wanted to write. And I still haven't said everything I could say (or even everything I need to say). But I'm ready to move on. Book of Exalted Deeds took a lot out of me, but unlike its counterpart, it didn't really have any terrible lows. Just a constant chipping away that somehow made blandness feel like an attack. 

Ukss Contribution: It'd be real ironic if this book about the Good alignment made my rarefied list of evil rpg supplements, but honestly even its badness doesn't reach that high level. It doesn't use racial slurs or advocate genocide. It's a little problematic the way it equates the aesthetics of Christianity with ultimate good, but it's so shallow that it feels more like it's missing a target than drawing one. There's very little in here that would upset a fascist, but that's because it's trying to depict what fascists are pretending to be. There was a lot that exacerbated me, but nothing that felt especially dangerous.

Plus, I did genuinely enjoy certain parts. I like the shiny aesthetic, when it's self-aware enough to know it's just an aesthetic. So that's why I'm going with the goth-iest thing in the book: The Rain of Black Tulips spell. Like most other spells in this book, its actual effect is pretty bland (moderate damage and nausea to evil creatures in an area of effect), but the imagery is memorable.

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