Posts Tagged ‘alignment’

This started as a reply to Brian’s comment on my last post, but quickly ballooned into something too big for a comment thread.  Brian said he likes my notions on the 3×3 Alignment (thanks, so do I) but he feels like there really needs to be consequences for breaking alignment — “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.”

Generally I agree, but I need to do a lot of unpacking to get at what I mean. There are a lot of things going on with that deceptively simple question.  First, yes, there should be repercussions for acting out of alignment; but there should be repercussions for any meaningful action, so this doesn’t really tell us much.  What I think Brian means, though, is that D&D has traditionally had mechanical and class-based penalties for breaking out of alignment, and this has traditionally meant that a Paladin can not lie for fear of losing their powers and being reduced to less-than-a-Fighter — how would I deal with that actuality?

I think that there are a few things going on here.  There’s how how Alignment affects a class, Alignment affects a character, and how Alignment affects the world.  I’ll address them in reverse order.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: it gets long.


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?

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.


There’s a couple of posts on here right now discussing Race in D&D.  On the one hand we have a discussion of Race As Class, and more recently I tried to address the issue of races that are Always Chaotic Evil. Both of these issues are hold-overs from the origins of D&D, probably inherited from Chainmail and now warped to some extent or another due to lack of context and the evolution of the game. So right off, I’d have to concede that both are probably a matter of taste to some extent, and your mileage may vary.  That being said, I think both issues stem from a common source, and I intend to demonstrate why it’s not a patently absurd notion.

In that latter post a commenter suggested that my argument is only a partial answer to the question of racial stereotypes in D&D, and that there are plenty of things to consider — like, what about an industrious tribe of Goblins?  What about a group of Orcs who built a sprawling metropolis and discuss philosophy in amphitheaters?  For that matter, what about hyper-industrialist elves carving a swath of devastation across the land in their all-consuming drive to produce and consume?

When it comes down to it, I think this is all a question of whether all fantasy races are just humans in funny hats or not. That is, are we all just the same at a fundamental level, or are there actual differences that are simply inherent in the races.  Why are goblins erratic and lazy?  Because that’s part of what being a goblin is.  You might as well ask why fire burns.  Maybe they fatigue easily, maybe they have some other biological quirk that makes focus and productivity difficult or impossible.  Maybe their neural chemistry produces a different kind of perception, in the end it doesn’t matter how deep you go or what kind of explanation you give, the final question you have to ask is: are goblins (or orcs or elves) just the same as humans, or not?  If the answer is “no, they’re just the same as humans” that might be a valid setting to play in, but I feel like you lose a lot of the potential that Fantasy brings us as a genre.  And if the answer is “no, they’re different from humans somehow” then at some level that’s your answer — goblins are like goblins because they’re different from humans.  You can go on to discuss the hows and whys behind that answer, and I could see a whole campaign built around an adventuresome researcher trying to understand the various Races, but in the end the question is already answered.

So, my goblins are lazy, my orcs are brutal, my elves are arrogant.  Some goblins may be clever, some orcs may be honorable, and some elves may be benevolent — there may be whole tribes of each of these — but there is something fundamental that makes them goblins, orcs, and elves and asking why they don’t behave like humans is partly missing the point.

I feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just me.

There’s a post today at Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Website about how every group needs a moral compass “to remind his or her adventuring companions that they’re heroes.”  I would tend to disagree — there are some play styles and some campaigns where having a moral compass might be useful or encouraged, but I think it’s a stretch to say that every group needs a moral compass.  After all, who ever said that the PCs have to be “heroes”?

There was a time when I would have agreed with the WotC article, when I would have shaken my fist and said “yes, that’s what my group needs.”  In those days, I developed campaigns not unlike movie screenplays or novel outlines, and a lot of the time my players messed it up.  They wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go, they wouldn’t act the way I wanted them to act.  I found myself building barriers to discourage the “wrong” choices and trying to suss out what kind of sticks or carrots I could use to get my players to go the “right” direction.  Did they want money, or glory, or fame?  Could I kidnap a family member, or threaten them with the King’s Justice if they didn’t obey?  Those were very stressful times for me, and I’ve been moving slowly but steadily away from them.

The point is, an adventuring group only needs a moral compass if there are wrong choices for them to make.  And more and more, I feel that framing things so that any choice can be wrong kind of misses the point of Role Playing.  Sure, if you have a certain style of game you want to play — say a heroic quest where the PCs fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy — then there are guidelines you need to set down so that everyone (including the DM) has fun with the game.  But the heart of Role Playing is making choices based on who your character is, and for me the best role playing is when your character has to make a tough choice — and that usually requires the character to choose between Good and Evil in some way.  If the going-in assumption is that Evil is always the “wrong” choice, then there’s no choice at all.

In my games, all choices have consequences.  All choices change the world in some way, and that change will come back to affect the characters in some way.  Good acts will sometimes have negative consequences, sometimes doing bad things makes achieving your goals easier.  Players are free to choose to be the Heroes, and that can be awesome and fulfilling, but if my players want to fracture the party and raise armies against each other, I think that should be just as valid.  If players choose to be villains we should let them, and they should reap the benefits and consequences of their actions regardless of what those actions are.

I had a conversation about alignments yesterday, and in particular the problem of “monster” races, and how such-and-such race is “always chaotic evil.”  I agreed that this was a problem, that things would be different in my games, that it shouldn’t be reasonable that a Lawful Good Paladin slaughters an entire village of sentient (if ugly) creatures without a twinge of guilt.

Now, in my system of alignment, “evil” isn’t evil, per se.  It could be argued that none of the traditional labels are particularly good fitsBut then we actually started talking about specific races, what the differences are between goblins, hobgoblins, and orc; what their cultures were like.  I started saying things like, “goblins are scavengers; they’re frenetic and lazy and they take things rather than build them.”  “Hobgoblins are militaristic and expansionist, more like an army than a society; they constantly seek to expand and subjugate other nations.” “Orcs are a brutal, tribal people who function on a ‘might makes right’ basis.”  So even if “evil” just means “willing to actively hurt others to achieve your goals,” aren’t all of these — goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs — simply evil creatures?  What would a good goblin look like?

As with my concept of alignment generally, I think the answer is a complicated one full of nuance.  I think that these societies that I’ve outlined are evil, and I think that being in that environment will tend individual members towards a matching alignment — after all, my notion of alignment is essentially short hand for characters’ values, and people derive at least some of their values from their society.  But just like I can envision a Lawful Good villain doing terrible things because “it’s for the best,” I can see a Good goblin who’s no less inclined to go raid a neighboring settlement.  In a way, both come down to rationalization, and if either one thinks too hard on it they might find themselves conflicted, wracked with guilt, or even choosing to change their alignment.  An Evil goblin raids a neighbor because he can, because he wants what they have, and he doesn’t care if (or possibly looks forward to) others get hurt in the process.  A Good goblin raids a neighbor because he has too, because they have things that his community needs, and he would rather (or possibly acts to ensure) nobody gets hurt in the process.  Both of them are raiding their neighbors and potentially having violent confrontations, but they have different reasons and different attitudes.

In the end, the point is that societies have an identity and alignment that is composed of but also more than the identity and alignment of their individual members.  Could there be a whole tribe of Lawful Good goblins who respect tradition and honor and don’t like hurting others?  Sure, but they’ll probably still raid their neighbors, because they’re frenetic and lazy.

All That You Hold Dear

Posted: 8 June 2012 in Toolbox
Tags: ,

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.”