Alignment Redux

Posted: 2021-05-17
Word Count: 1884
Tags: alignment rpg

While looking through some old files, I found the following essay. It’s at least two years old, probably several more. Unfortunately, I changed version control systems several times, so I have no idea when I wrote it.

“Alignment and Allegiance” refers to the Allegiance system on pp 315-318 of Basic Roleplaying As stated later in the essay, a percentile “allegiance” score measures a player character’s relationship with a divine being, cosmic principle, or moral philosophy. Acting in accordiance with that being or belief system’s principles raises the score. The rules as written suggest raising a diametrically opposed score for actions violating those principles, but back in the day some BRP sourcebooks simply lowered the Allegiance. For example, in Dragon Lines, loosely based on East Asian magic and religion, some violent and destructive actions violated Daoism, Confucianism, and most of the other philosophies.

The part near the end presents the same “temporal alignment” system as in “Alignment: Heresy and a Reformation”. It’s possible I was rewriting it for another forum, like Google+.

Alignment and Allegiance

I. Alignment Condemned

Alignment, as used in most of D&D, is, shall we say, problematic. (I almost said “broken”, but to forestall some commenter wagging his e-finger at me, I won’t.) It’s usually presented as a guide to how a character should/will behave, but as such it straight-jackets behavior into nine boxes (or less) while dodging some thorny ethical and metaphysical issues and vastly oversimplifying others. E.g. Why do D&D worlds have courts? Just hire paladins to point out the evil people. (h/t Gary McBride of Fire Mountain Games)

Other systems do this better:

II. Alignment Redefined

On the other hand, if we regard Law and Chaos as Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series did, and as Lamentations of the Flame Princess does, the concept makes more sense. Consider the following definitions, paraphrased from LotFP:

While the descriptions center on a character’s beliefs, they tie him to greater cosmic forces, either the “divine plan” of Law or the howling madness of Chaos. While I’m loath to posit absolute Good and Evil, even in a game, we could posit the following definitions:

Note these are extreme ethical positions, much like the Cosmicism of Chaos or the absolute belief in Law. Few people are absolute saints or absolute monsters; the vast majority (thankfully) fall somewhere in between. One could also define Evil as a hatred of life or a desire to destroy everything; philosophers have been trying to define Evil for literal ages. I went with a motive most people would understand taken to terrible extremes, simply because Evil For The Sake Of Being Evil is one of my least favorite tropes.

The one thing I liked about D&D 4th Edition is its treatment of alignment. For one thing it was totally disconnected from game mechanics, and therefore optional. Another, though, was the idea that someone had to work at maintaining an alignment, and that the default was Unaligned. If you called yourself Good you had to do good deeds on a regular basis, and avoid selfish or destructive acts; if you were Lawful Good you had to uphold Truth, Justice, and the Pelorian Way. (Other gods are available.)

If Law or Chaos sinks its hooks into your character early and never let go, then “true” Good or Evil are ingrained in the character’s very being. If your character doesn’t spend every waking moment (and many dreams) trying to make the world a better place, they’re not capital-g Good. If your character doesn’t spend every waking moment working solely for his own personal benefit (or planning the destruction of humanity, as you prefer), they’re not capital-e Evil.

III. Alignment Explored

Various versions of D&D have defined different alignment schemes:

Original & Basic D&D: [3] Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic

AD&D, 3.x, 5th, etc: [9] (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) x (Good, Neutral, Evil), with “Neutral Neutral” renamed “True Neutral”

D&D 4e: Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, Chaotic Evil

Some TSR-era version or variation I heard of kept only five: Lawful, Good, Neutral, Evil, Chaotic. I can’t find the source, though. Imagine, though, a world where Law and Chaos had no time for Good and Evil, and vice versa. One pair is battling over the nature of reality, the other over the welfare of humans.

One could propose other dualities or even monopolar Alignments. The GM and players would have to define what cosmic force each Alignment represents, and what actions (if any) increase or decrease its hold on a character. Mechanically, one could implement them using BRP’s Allegiance mechanic, cited above, or as a D&D alignment tied to a particular class, type of magic, etc.
For example:

Corruption: Found often in “grimdark” games where there’s no antithesis to ubiquitous evil, “Corruption” as an Allegiance measures one’s entanglement with the Forces of Evil. As befitting an unjust universe, Corruption may have nothing to do with the Corrupted’s moral qualities. Maybe they were born from an unholy union. Maybe they dwelled too long in an area of Corruption. To the paladins, witch hunters, and mutant-hating populace, that doesn’t matter.

Light & Shadow: In Chaosium’s recent Magic World (essentially Stormbringer without the Moorcock references) the three Allegiances are Light, Balance, and Shadow. Each increases monotonically and independently. I’ve decided that Light is something like Lawful Good, as if you rotated the D&D alignment chart onto one corner. Light, however, isn’t as “good” as it thinks it is; often agents of Light choose principle over compassion. Shadow is the absence of Light; by their reckoning, Shadow corrupts the world through sorcery and antisocial acts. Most followers of Shadow do perform despicable acts to please a demonic master. But Shadow also shelters those cast out of the Light: the imperfect, the pragmatic, the good witches, and those forced to choose the lesser evil.

Nature: The implicit alignment of all druids, Nature rejects the arts of men and gods alike.

More half-baked examples I’m fiddling with:

Note that History, Flux, and Entropy correspond to Past, Present, Future. This is not accidental. Historicists hate how the Flux wrecks causality and the illusion of continuity, and the notion of progress or purpose is anathema to Entropists. Historicists also don’t want Entropists wrecking their meticulous chronicles; meanwhile, things happening just makes more things Entropists have to destroy.

  1. I’m looking for a better term. ↩︎