Protect Us From Evil

Posted: 11 July 2012 in Game Structure
Tags: , , , , , ,

There 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 in.

Alignment in 4th Edition

The first post is from the Dungeon’s Master, where he questions the importance of Alignment in 4th Edition.  He notes that 4E pared down the long-held Nine Alignments to five, and that two of those five are explicitly barred from Player Characters.  He goes on to note that there are no penalties to changing alignments, and that the alignments that remain are so broad and all-encompassing that it’s unlikely that a character would stray from them any ways.  He wonders if alignment even matters in 4th Edition.

To that I think I would respond that no, alignment doesn’t matter in 4th Edition.  That’s not to say that I think it can’t matter in a campaign using the 4E system — it can, and like the Dungeon’s Master I think it should — but it’s my opinion that 4th Edition has a drastically different perspective on what D&D is than it’s predecessors did, and that different perspective doesn’t care much about alignment.

D&D has grown and changed over the years; this becomes more and more apparent as I read up about Chainmail and OD&D compared to the 3.X that I was introduced to.  It was a war game that turned into an adventure game that became a role playing game.  And as a role playing game, alignment aid the player in getting into they’re character’s head.  It informs the player what their character’s morals and values are, and that should be used to inform the decisions and actions he makes.  Why must a Paladin be Lawful Good?  Because those are the values someone must hold before they would take up such a calling.  Why must a rogue be non-Good?  Because you can’t burglarize people on a regular basis and hold values focused on “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  These aren’t straight-jackets or lists of things your character can’t do, they’re things your character wouldn’t do and the perspective he has on the world around him.  I believe the penalties associated with changing alignment in 1e and 2e are just ways of making the game care about alignment; they look like pretty ham-fisted ways from my point of view, but they’re the proverbial stick to encourage the player to consider his alignment before acting.

Fourth Edition essentially made D&D a tactical miniatures game.  That’s essentially what all the 4E rules are about, and I’m not convinced that bolting on the flawed Skill Challenge structure they have changes that.  You might argue that this returns to D&D’s war gaming roots and I’d be hard-pressed to deny you.  4E-the-game only cares about alignment in terms of “who’s side are you on,” so PCs are always “good” and monsters and villains are always “evil.”  They may be slightly-less evil (Unaligned) or slightly-more evil (Chaotic Evil), but they’re the bad guys.  I would argue that the game is no longer about playing a role, and so the game doesn’t need to care about it beyond that.

Alignment in General

The second post is actually the one I found first; it’s a response to the Dungeon’s Master from the Gassy Gnoll.  The gnoll first dismisses motivations and says that an act itself can be good or evil, depending on if it helps or hurts people.  Then he goes on to say that committing such an act doesn’t necessarily make a person good or evil, because their motivations can twist it.  He says that “chains of actions” might indicate a certain pattern one way or the other, but he doesn’t seem to think that really makes a difference; in his words, that doesn’t make them “better or worse than the rest of us.”

At this point it strikes me that the Gnoll is getting caught up on the baggage around terms like “good” and “evil”; those can sometimes be accurate terms to use, but I generally feel that “altruistic” and “cut-throat” or something along those lines are a better way of framing it.  An Alpha Male CEO might be Lawful Evil not because he worships the beast and torture is his favorite pastime, but because he’s willing to do “whatever it takes” to reach his goals, regardless of who he has to hurt to get there. Robin Hood might be Chaotic Good not because he never lies or steals (obviously) but because what he does is motivated by a desire to help as many people as much as he can.

The Gnoll goes on to say that he can conceive of keeping alignment around as “training wheels” for new players, but that overall he doesn’t see the usefulness, and it should just be tossed out.  Instead, he thinks that “good” and “evil” should be recast as “holy” or “unholy” and be relative to a character’s worldview — so unholy to an evil priest is holy to a good priest, and so on.  I think that actually muddies the water a lot more than necessary; if you want to play an evil priest, play an evil priest.  But more to the point, I think it misses the fact that alignment should be used as a role-playing touchstone for characters, a shorthand for what their values are.  This isn’t training wheels or simply sacrosanct tradition, it’s a meaningful facet of who the character is and what informs his decisions.

Capital-A Alignment

I’d like to make an aside here to talk about the difference between “alignment” and “Alignment,” because the term gets a little overloaded, I think.  Specifically I’m talking about applications of Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos in divine and arcane magic.  It’s an issue that comes up a lot because it’s one of relatively few places that D&D-the-game addresses alignment outside of character creation, and it makes the question of “what does alignment mean” a bigger deal.  For example, can I use Detect Evil to find the murderer?  Do I lose my Paladin abilities if I ever tell a lie?  If the villain has Protection from Law does that mean Jorgin the Bold, my dwarven fighter, can’t touch him?

To the first point, spells like Detect Evil and Protection from Evil, magic in general, seem to be interested in a deeper, fundamental sense of Alignment than “do you give money to the poor?”  It’s not really made clear in the descriptions of such spells, but Detect Evil specifically talks about aligned “auras”, and Pathfinder at least notes that non-Cleric characters under Level 5 have no aura.  Clerics and Outsiders are attuned to a greater cosmic force, and that is what Aligns them with a capital-A. (The fact that ‘mundane’ characters develop an Aura at Level 6 dovetails nicely with my notion that they’ve become something more than merely human at that point.)  I think that should be the measure for other such spells, like Protection from Alignment, so that Jorgin the Bold isn’t deterred by Protection from Law, but Alphonse the Pious and their angelic companion are.

  1. Brendan says:

    Instead, he thinks that “good” and “evil” should be recast as “holy” or “unholy” and be relative to a character’s worldview

    I like holy/unholy, but I think that it should not be relative to a character’s worldview. The alignment system does not need to model the complexity of real-world morality and ethics, and trying to do so is what leads to the mushiness and frequent misunderstandings regarding alignment (because different people have different ethical values).

    In the end, I think the conception of alignment adopted should primarily serve the game. Thus, detect evil as method to determine if an innkeeper is lying does not work well for me, and that sort of interpretation is what has led to the widespread mocking of alignment systems (your last few paragraphs mention a number of similar issues).

    On a slight tangent, this is one of my favorite discussions of alignment:

    It takes an almost “political science” angle, and I think it’s one of the best (most gameable) versions of alignment other than the “cosmic evil” version of alignment that I use (which is primarily drawn from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Carcosa, and ultimately Lovecraft).

    Auras are new to me, and interesting, if perhaps a bit too mechanical (it seems they might fight against a sense of mystery). They do fit nicely into the Alexandrian tiers of play, and also resonate well with how I’ve been assuming things work (for example, I note in a recent post that powerful sorcerers might become chaotic in the same way that elementals, demons, and other summoned beings are chaotic).

    • Jack says:

      Yeah, I don’t like Holy/Unholy for the same reasons I don’t like Good/Evil – in fact, I think it exacerbates the problem. But I can see how that could be a meaningful axis to have (what if alignment were X,Y,Z instead of just X,Y; could that be done?) and agree that, in the end, it should be something that adds meaningfully to the game. I come to the game looking for interpersonal relations and internal conflict, and so casting alignment as a sort of socio-psychologic values system serves my needs.

      I don’t know much about Flame Princess (what I’ve caught glimmers of feels hit or miss as far as my interests go) but I’ll have to check it out.

      Auras actually don’t tell you much of anything, really. As near as I can tell, you can sense auras with certain spells, but there’s no way to pinpoint them and smaller ones can be eclipsed by stronger ones. There’s enough to fiddle with that it’s meaningful without being really abuse-able.

      I actually *love* the idea that Sorcerers might begin to tend toward Chaos. I may give that one a longer think, and maybe a post to discuss it more fully.

  2. […] Brendan commented that he liked the idea of Holy vs Unholy, but that it shouldn’t be relative, so Holy meant the same thing […]

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