All That You Hold Dear

Posted: 8 June 2012 in Toolbox
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One of the things that bothers me, that’s pervasive in the way adventures are written, the way PCs and NPCs are envisioned, and so on, is what appears to me to be a misinterpretation of Alignment.  I’ve done a lot of thinking on the subject, but for this post I did some extra research to make sure I got things right.  So first, an interesting little history lesson.

D&D, as many may know, stemmed from a tabletop wargame called Chainmail.  From what I know it was a lot like Warhammer or Warmachine.  Each player brings an army, you move them across the terrain and make hits against opposing units.  When one player achieves some goal (occasionally simply annihilation of the opposing forces) they win. Chainmail set itself up as a conflict between Law and Chaos, and individual units were aligned to one side or the other (or neutral) so a player could decide what sorts of units made sense to include in an army together.  It wasn’t about philosophy and morals so much as which side of an Epic Conflict you were on.  As was noted on Grognardia, at this point the alignments might as well have been “Romans” and “Gauls.”

The original D&D game took these alignments straight from Chainmail, and like Chainmail they didn’t explain or describe what Law or Chaos meant; I imagine it was understood, since D&D was an offshoot of Chainmail, and Chainmail just used them as Faction names.  (As an aside, this is why having a common language for Lawful creatures or Chaotic creatures makes sense — it’s talking about factions not ideologies, and it only follows that a faction would be able to communicate internally.  Later, when alignment moves away from describing a faction, this makes less sense.)  Early expansions/revisions of D&D even note that Lawful or Chaotic creatures may be either good or evil, which makes sense if the faction one is aligned to just determines what side of the conflict you’re on (rather than describing morals).

Over time this grew in to the two-axis system of alignments we know now: on one axis the line between Law and Chaos, and on the other the line between Good and Evil.  The result is nine alignments ranging from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, and they’ve moved from simple factions to prescribing and proscribing behaviors, and some editions have even suggested penalties for veering from your stated alignment!  But what does all of this mean?

The Pathfinder SRD has this to say about alignment (paraphrased): alignment is a tool to develop character identity, and each of the nine covers a broad range of personalities and philosophies.  People are people, and no one is completely consistent. Good/Evil is about altruism and compassion on one side, and selfishness and callousness on the other.  Law/Chaos is about honor and reliability on one hand, and freedom and adaptability on the other.  Neutrality on either scale means you’re generally a good person, but you lack the conviction to make bold actions. The d20 SRD has similar things to say.

Which brings me to my point: alignment is a way of codifying in a broad way what your character’s values are.  Does your character believe the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one)?  Or does your character recognize that there are winners and losers, and he’s going to do what he must to be a winner?  Does your character feel that tradition, authority, and reliability are what separates us from beasts and savages?  Or does she thing that a society that tries to dictate what people can and can’t do is no society worth having?  Or various other philosophical approaches to Good/Evil, Law/Chaos?  Two Lawful Good characters can hold sharp differences of opinion on what is means to Lawful. A Lawful Good and Chaotic Good character can have very different ideas about what “good” means.

Along with that, these are a character’s values, but they are not absolute bounds on a character’s actions.  Lawful Good is not “Lawful Stupid” — it isn’t so much that he can’t lie, but that he’d rather not and would have an internal conflict if he did (since it violates a core value he holds).  An Evil character isn’t incapable of helping others, but he may be angry with himself for “being soft” or letting someone take advantage of him, or not having the strength to do what must be done.

This also means that a shift in alignment has to be more than just a single counter-aligned action, or even a series of such actions — it has to be a true shift in the character’s values and perspective.  This could be a gradual thing, as a character decides that his values are wrong but still feels conflicted when he offends them.  Or it could be a sudden thing, the classic paradigm shift.  In either case, I don’t think it’s something that should be sprung on a player unexpectedly.

As a final point, the question of “what do detect [alignment] spells detect?” often comes up.  The spells themselves talk about detecting auras, and then list a table on what kind of aura various creatures leave.  In d20, a regular (not cleric, outsider, or other ‘strongly-aligned’) creature under level 10 has a “faint aura”; in Pathfinder, they add that such creatures under level 5 have no aura.  Which way you decide to go is something of a matter of taste and the tone you want to set for your campaign — and what the effect of such a mechanic would be.  In my games, regular townsfolk are (at best) level 1 NPC-classes, and they come in a full range of alignments (based on their personal values).  Using the d20 scale, detecting alignment in a crowd wouldn’t provide meaningful information because you’d pick up a sprinkling of regular people; using the Pathfinder scale, only strongly-aligned creatures or really powerful (Level 6+) mundane folk would show up with an aura. I think the latter works better for my games because it means any information you gain is meaningful information.

  1. Personally I feel like starting out as townsfolk and growing from there is a good idea. It introduces into the players heads right at the get-go the idea that they’re not playing super heros and being “normal” is okay. So not having things like 17 & 18 level stats is okay. Part of the reason for the addiction to them is those coveted bonuses they provide. The +3 of an 18 that applies to almost every aspect of that trait is pretty powerful.

    Here’s my suggestion to you: Remove the stats altogether in the beginning. Ask the players to come up with a description for each of their stats instead. Instead of asking for a number for Strength, ask strength-related questions. If your player were to punch someone in the face, would it barely affect the person, hurt them, knock them unconscious, kill them, crush their skull? Dex: If your player were on a log in the water, how many seconds could they last before they would fall into the water? Wis: If your character were given 10 gold pieces from a stranger how would they react? What would they do with the 10 gold? Int: Can your character read? How long do you think it would take your character to learn a new language? Cha: If your character walked into a bar, would people turn their heads? Why?

    You could use these questions to a) force your players to think about how their characters would handle certain situations and firm up their idea of their character in their head and b) allow you to build their stats for them based on their answers.

    The same format could be used for alignment.

    Obviously you don’t want this for skills & feats as it would take forever to write up a character, but I feel its a really big starting point and starts the roleplaying portion off on a the right foot.

    I have an acting background, so the idea of ‘getting into the head’ of my character is something I enjoy doing and try to make a point of doing when I play. But even though I may build a nice character background for myself, when I first start playing I’m not playing as my character. I’m just pulling the strings of a puppet. It’s only through the interactions one has in the game that the puppet and the player have the opportunity to combine.

    • Jack says:

      Amusingly, your system for deciding attributes and alignments sounds a lot like the system early games in the Elder Scrolls line (notably Arena, Daggerfall, and Morrowind) used to guide character creation. Are you familiar with the games?

      I’m a big fan of mechanics — I love the crunchy parts of the hobby — but I’ve found lately that a lot of mechanics encourage the “wrong” behavior; too much moving a pawn on a board or pulling the strings of a puppet, and not really playing their character. I’m looking in to different “invisible to the players” mechanics (kind of similar to what you’ve suggested here) to see if maybe that can be effective.

      • If you decide to give it (or something like it) a shot, I’d love to hear how it works out for you!

        • Jack says:

          Well, I’m between games right now, but one of the things I’m considering is “an invisible battlemap.” The players would have a sketched visual aid so they know where people and things are situated, but it wouldn’t be marked off into 5ft “spaces.” The DM would have a normal battlemap on his side so he can keep track accurately for mechanics, but I kinda feel like players should engage with mechanics as little as possible… We’ll see if that feeling survives a playtest some day.

  2. casewerk says:

    Alighnment as presently constituted is a useful shorthand that all too easily gets turned into a straightjacket on behavior. Your points are good and worth consideration.

    That said, I really do favor “alignment” when it’s more of “allegiance” than the character’s moral code. The term “alignment” itself seems to suit the former interpretation. When I looked at, I found no definition of the word alignment that had anything to do with a system or morality, but I did find this: “a state of agreement or cooperation among persons, groups, nations, etc., with a common cause or viewpoint.”

    In the past I’ve often had players list their affiliations and allegiances, and then whether or not the character is from the “mainstream” of that group or closer to its fringes (either a zealot, or some sort of fringe radical, or part of the ‘loyal opposition’ or something) and found that to be helpful

    • Jack says:

      That’s fair, though I think I’d find alignment less useful as a role playing guide if it were “allegiance” instead of “values.” Plenty of people are affiliated with this group or that group, but that doesn’t give clear insight into their character.

      I agree that a lot of people (DMs and Players, with myself occationally included) get it wrong and say things like “you can’t do that, because you’re [alignment]” when the real answer is “you can do that, but think about what it means for your character and his value system.”

      • casewerk says:

        I agree that having a shorthand for their actual value system is very valuable. I’d rather call it something other than “alignment” however. A term more suited and, well, accurate.

        • Jack says:

          I don’t think there’s anything especially unsuitable about the term “alignment” (in the sense of “orientation” or “disposition”) for value systems, but I’m also not sure I really care much what term we use so long as we define it correctly.

  3. […] had a conversation about alignments yesterday, and in particular the problem of “monster” races, and how such-and-such race […]

  4. […] feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just […]

  5. […] are a couple posts I read today about alignment, and since alignment is something I care about quite a bit, I wanted to toss my two cents […]

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