On A Cubed Alignment

Posted: 12 July 2012 in Game Structure
Tags: , ,

I like alignment systems.

I think the D&D Nine get a short shrift by most people, who’ve decided they don’t like a game that tells them what they can and can’t do.  (I think that’s a misunderstanding of the system.)  But there’s also the various Morality scales in White Wolf’s World of Darkness (Morality, Humanity, Clarity, etc); the Palladium Seven (two Good, two Selfish, and three Evil), though they strike me as much more prescriptive than D&D; and a variety of similar “this is how my character thinks and perceives the world” systems in other games.  I think they’re very useful tools for Role Playing and give a quick handle for internal and external conflicts.

One gripe I have with the D&D Nine is the choice of Good vs Evil as an axis.  It’s a reasonable choice to make, and like many things in D&D I’m pretty sure it developed organically over decades, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of baggage that comes with those terms.  After all, no one gets up in the morning and thinks “I’m going to be evil today” (with the possible exception of cosmic forces, I guess).  No one thinks of themselves as a bad person (even if they do bad things, it’s always justifiable, at least in their minds).  The catch, of course, is that the definition D&D gives these terms doesn’t line up with the baggage they come with — Good talks about putting the needs of others above your own needs, even to the point of risk to yourself; Evil talks about a willingness to hurt and enslave others if it is convenient or expedient, essentially putting your needs above anyone else’s.  It could be properly recast as “Altruistic vs Egoistic,” but that’s hardly as approachable as “Good vs Evil.” It’s also a lot less vague.

Yesterday, the Gassy Gnoll proposed that “Holy vs Unholy” should replace “Good vs Evil” and that it should be relative to the character, so what’s Holy for a follower of Pelor is very different from what’s Holy for a follower of Nerull.  Brendan commented that he liked the idea of Holy vs Unholy, but that it shouldn’t be relative, so Holy meant the same thing whether you followed Pelor or Nerull, it’s just Nerull’s followers oppose the Holy.  I don’t think that fixes the problems I have with Good vs Evil, and in fact it probably makes them worse, but it struck me that it could be an interesting addition to alignment, a Cubed Alignment instead of 3×3.

But what would that look like? What’s the difference between Lawful Good Holy and Lawful Good Unholy? Wait, scratch that.  Saying someone is Good Unholy or Evil Holy is going to quickly turn in to nonsense, so let’s start by replacing the current Good and Evil with Altruistic and Egoistic.  So what’s the difference between Lawful Altruistic Holy and Lawful Altruistic Unholy?  Can we even make sense of what this third axis could be?

Let’s look at the Axises we currently have, first.  In Law vs Chaos, Law represents order, honor, tradition, and authority; Chaos represents individualism, freedom, and impulse.  Neutral characters are neither particularly bound to honor or tradition, but also don’t chafe under it or feel a need to resist or rebel.  In Altruism vs Egoism, Altruism is about putting the needs of others before your own, even to the point of sacrifice; Egoism is about putting your needs above the needs of others, to the point of being callous or cruel.  Neutral characters try to be good neighbors, but generally are neither willing to sacrifice themselves nor victimize others.

So what about Holy vs Unholy? I’m honestly not really sure how we should cast the terms.  In some cases, Holy refers to association with or supporting the gods, and unholy would be anything aimed against them.  I don’t think that’s what we’re aiming for.  In other cases, Unholy is the same as wickedness, and Holy is some combination of Lawfulness and Altruism.  I don’t think that’s what we want either.  We could put it in terms of suffering, where Holy creatures strive to decrease suffering and Unholy creatures strive to increase it; or we could put it in vague terms like Good and Evil, or Light and Dark, where Unholy creatures strive for negative ends and Holy creatures strive for positive ends.  But the more I think of it, the less I feel it really adds anything.

Maybe I just need to give it more thought.  Anyone out there have ideas I might be missing?

  1. Hey Jack, I’m glad my article (though we disagree a bit) spawned an idea. 🙂

    I like your idea for 3×3 alignment, but still wonder about the cost of doing something out of line. If you’re a lawful good paladin and you strike down an enemy out of anger instead of in the name of your deity, there should be repercussions. How do you deal with that sort of in-game adjustment?

  2. Brendan says:

    No one thinks of themselves as a bad person (even if they do bad things, it’s always justifiable, at least in their minds).

    I don’t think this is necessarily true. Yes, people are masters of self-justification (and psychological studies show this as well, if that matters to a discussion of fantasy RPGs). However, I think that plenty of thieves, reavers, mercenaries, and soldiers through history would recognize impulses as essentially selfish or malicious. So I don’t think all villains need to see themselves as misunderstood (though many do); some just want to come out on top. And that would be a good candidate for evil, in the D&D sense.

    • Jack says:

      I totally agree, but I think there’s a difference between thinking “there are winners and there are losers, and I’m going to be a winner” and “I’m going to go cause pain and misery because I’m evil.” Aside from the insane (and for a fantasy setting, potentially add cosmic beings) I just can’t imagine anyone functioning like that. Even the Joker from Dark Knight had more nuance to his motivation than simply wanting to watch the world burn.

  3. Laraqua says:

    I like the Altrustic versus Egoistic approaches. Evil’s baggage means that it tends to be the very nastiest ends of the spectrum (rape, wilful murder, torture) while Good tends to have a wider range of behaviours (unreciprocated generosity, going out of your way to help another) although Neutral still has the widest range of what people do.

    Evil makes a very good indicator of a Big Bad but it also throws up issues of Intention (I torture you to keep my village from dying) versus Action (if torturing is evil due to pain caused without consent, then what about surgery without anaesthesia when the patient begs you to stop?)

    Altruism verus Egoism is a really fantastic way to go about it and allows the enemies to have a bit more of a personal touch in a more morally complex game. ‘Evil’ creatures like demons and devils can still be Egoists – just at the extreme end of Egoism. It also makes the whole ‘balance between good and evil’ make more sense than just ‘well, the world needs a bit of rape and torture or else things get thrown out of whack’.

    • Jack says:

      Glad you like it! This is the way that I treated the 3×3 Alignments even before I considered the problems of “Good VS Evil” baggage. I like to think it works out well, and it lets me have Lawful Good villains (“it’s for the greater good,” or “this is good for you, whether you want it or not”).

      I also tend to think that *most* people are probably True Neutral, but maybe not. Neutral is essentially saying “I don’t have extreme convictions one way or the other” — that is, they try to do what they think is best, but they don’t have a driving principle (a committed alignment) that they won’t bend. A character who claims Good, Evil, Lawful, or Chaotic has a stronger guiding principle that informs their actions (and most importantly to me, can drive internal conflicts).

      I think that actual Aligned creatures — those with a metaphysical connection to Good, Evil, Law, or Chaos; things like Devils, Demons, Angels, and Clerics — work a little bit differently. A Devil may act egoistically, but more especially they champion egoism in the world: there goal is that everyone act egoistically. They may also have other motivations depending on your cosmology — they might champion Evil-as-such in addition to Egoism.

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