Sunday, 14 December 2008

The 'Thorny Issue' of Alignment

I wrote a little throwaway post a few days ago offering examples of Chaotic characters from real life and fiction; I was going to do one for Lawful and Neutral alignment types too, but then I read a recent article on Turbulent Thoughts regarding the topic, and it got me thinking about it in a little more detail.

To sum up my own position: I'm a believer in (as that great philosopher Dante Hicks once put it) taking a shit, or getting off the pot. That is, either make a decision to do something and carry it through all the way, or don't bother at all. This philosophy has a great deal to say to the 4e designers, and nowhere does this apply more than in the field of alignment. They had their chance to excrete alignment completely; they had their chance to get off the pot and keep it as it was; instead they did neither, and ended up with thoroughly soiled pants. The 4e alignment system is a remedial red-headed stepchild of the old structure, ill-brought up and without any clear place in the world, and the designers should have had the balls to throw the baby out with the bath water. And that makes three analogies for the price of one - so don't try to tell me I'm not providing value for money on the metaphor front.

I'm not wedded to alignment at all; I've played enough non-D&D games to know how unnecessary and weird the whole thing is - a sort of hang-up from Moorcock which morphed into a creaking quasi-religious philosophical framework over the years. The Planescape campaign setting should in fact have proved that D&D characters at least didn't need alignment, in its rather more sophisticated and practical view of their motivations. Yet there is something oddly compelling about the old diametric structure. The symmetry itself is appealing, but I also like the attempt it made (whether conscious or not) to create a set of ethics which had absolutely nothing to do with real-world politics or religion. It's a fantasy belief system for a fantasy world, and that in itself is highly interesting. And while it has little worth as a way of policing players, it does at least prevent politics from ruining a gaming session. I've met enough idiots from both the Left and the Right who'll take any opportunity to spout out bilge, and in my experience the D&D alignment system distracts them from doing so where other games can often fail.

The key to sensible alignment lies, I believe, in not seeing it as an explicit way of thinking of the world, but rather an implicit one. People don't see themselves or their behaviour as Chaotic Evil or Neutral Good, even if it is - indeed, those terms do not exist as ways of describing people or the world. They are rather metaterms for groups of philosophies and behaviours to which actors unintentionally subscribe, perhaps known only to the Gods and whoever governs the multiverse. Thus an Epicurean pleasure-seeking anarchist sees himself as "a libertine", rather than "Chaotic Neutral", but he is nevertheless considered "Chaotic Neutral" by the laws of reality and the 'powers that be' across the universe. It is those immutable and unkown laws which deprive a ranger or paladin, unbeknownst to him, of his powers when he has crossed alignment lines too many times.

From tomorrow I'm going to start a ten-post marathon run-down on each alignment and how I see it. Be afraid. Be very afraid.


  1. Agree with you on the 4E alignments. They seem to be little more than a knock-off of WFRP's Law - Good - Neutral - Evil - Chaos schema.

    Looking forward to the exploration of what alignment means to noisms.

    *popcorns, braces for epic nerdsquabbling in the comments*

  2. I've always thought it would be interesting to have the DM control alignment, secret from the players. Be a bit of extra work, but it'd get across that "mysterious force of the universe" bit.

  3. I dunno - I definitely agree with Chris that the 4e alignment system is WFRP 1e, but I'm not sure why that's a bad thing. Did it work fine for WFRP? Yes. Does it possibly promote solid clashes between the extremes, just as WFRP did? I dunno - maybe?

    Also, I'm surprised you say that Planescape, with the Great Wheel, wasn't tied to alignment...

    Looking forward to where you go with this.

  4. Chris: I'm waiting for the epic nerdsquabbling with some trepidation. ;)

    Odyssey: I think that would be fun, actually. The problem is that players would quickly work out the score. " character is very moralistic, and obeys the law..."

    Allandaros: What I meant by the Planescape comment was that characters didn't really need an alignment in Planescape, because the factions were all-pervading. The Great Wheel was important, sure, but I think that can tie into my idea that nobody in the multiverse thinks in the terminology of alignment - all alingments are is metaconcepts for how the Planes are arranged.

  5. Once we started playing Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed/Evolved, one of my friends took great pleasure in writing "SCREW YOU" in the alignment field of his character sheet (AE doesn't use alignments).

    I see alignment in stages. For a neophyte, it's an easy handle on how to play a character - you need it to define who you are. Once you have some experience under your belt, alignment begins to chafe and annoy, and you move beyond it. Then, you hit a certain level of experience, and alignment becomes interesting again, from a larger view - looking at the alignment of cities, nations, gods, etc, and comparing your character to them.

    Then you hit another level, and it's all just a big mass of story that just works.

    I've always prefered AE's Champion class - the Champion has a Cause, be it Freedom, Justice, Light, Darkness, or what have you. His powers are themed around that, and for him, it's a real force. But for everyone else, it's just words.

  6. The 4E alignment scheme reminds me of that in the original D&D set (Vol. 1: Men & Magic). The Alignments are Law, Neutrality and Chaos. Additionally, Anti-Clerics are Evil. Cleric-types must side firmly with Law or Chaos before "name" level. Thus:
    Evil High Priests are Evil and Chaotic.
    Anti-Clerics are Evil.
    Clerics are Non-Evil.
    Patriarchs are Non-Evil and Lawful.

  7. I love Champions. Had a great time with the Champion of Justice-turned-Loyalty in my AE game. Much better, in my opinion, than alignment as a guide for and barometer of behavior. But then, alignment is cooler for the cosmological angle, and as something that the gods care about.

  8. Lorechaser: That's quite a nice summary you've come up with there. That's certainly been my experience.

    Dwayanu: I understand 4e is in some ways closer to OD&D, but neither system has the symmetry and easy comprehension of the AD&D one.

    Odyssey: That's kind of what I'm aiming for. Characters don't give a hoot about alignment, and don't even know what it is, really. But the Gods do, and that's what matters.

  9. Here's how I view the 4E alignments:

    Lawful Good - Enlighten the world.
    Good - Save the world.
    Unaligned - Let the world be.
    Evil - Corrupt the world.
    Chaotic Evil - Destroy the world.

  10. Hexmage: I think the problem with that is, who wants to actually corrupt or destroy the world? Even people like Pol Pot or Hitler believed they were acting in the best interests of humanity.

    That's why I think LE/NE/CE work better. They describe motivations from the point of view of the character a little better.

  11. Hey Noisms, thanks for the link.

    Personally, I do agree that they might as well have thrown out alignment, because I have always seen it as an unneeded source of trauma and drama between the numerous people who either develop a flawed understanding of it and pass it off as truth, or those who don't understand it at all. However, living in a flawed world as I do, I can settle for the 4e alignment system neutering alignments. I'd have rather they not exist, but existing as weak mockeries of themselves as is the next best thing. Of course, this is coming from somebody who has found them stupid throughout D&D history.

  12. Wyatt: I'd rather have one or the other - alignments that work or no alignments at all. 4e's "weak mockeries" seem like an utter waste of time.