Thoughts on Alignments

The recent spate of Story Games threads about d20 have got me thinking a bit about alignments. Alignments in RPGs are a weird thing. They’re a defining feature of the #1 RPG, but they’re fairly rare in the range of RPGs that have been published. And like a lot of things in D&D, they’ve become a fixture of the game while kind of losing sight of the way they were originally intended, much less the source material that Gygax and company pulled the concept from.

D&D style alignments are rather awkward when it comes to describing morality per se. I know in playing D&D I’ve ended up making lots of True Neutral/Unaligned characters, and for certain D&D haters love to harp on it as one of the game’s flaws. While the 9-point alignment system is okay for describing characters in terms of how they relate to a society, it gets weird when you consider clashes with other societies. Will a Lawful Good paladin have a problem with slaying orc women and children, who his Detect Alignment power tells him are objectively Evil?

Another place I ran into some conundrums with alignment was in the various Palladium games. Palladium has of course clung to an alignment system that started with AD&D’s and went into something more to Kevin Siembieda’s liking, including the “No Neutrals” rant based on the idea that a True Neutral character would just stand there[1]. To be fair, neutral alignment was rather vague until D&D 3rd Edition or so, but it’s nonetheless weird to see rants against aspects of AD&D 1st Edition as recently as a new Robotech RPG published in 2008. This in turn led to animals being True Neutral in D&D (which made perfect sense to me; ethics are a matter for the sentient) and if I remember correctly Unprincipled or Anarchist in Palladium. It also didn’t allow for characters with different ethics depending on who they were dealing with. At one point I was writing up a race of tiger aliens (closely based on the Kzin), who would be perfectly good (Principled or Scrupulous) to each other, but treated those not of their own species as non-entities, utterly unworthy of respect. I ended up giving them a good alignment with a parenthetical, though I was maybe 15 years old when I was writing that. It might seem like an unlikely quandary, but in real life every people wants to believe they’re good, and it seems like there’s a constant struggle to own the meaning of “good” in the first place.

Hear that? An UNBENDING rule! Also, the XP and level system I use is extremely realistic an practical.

Pre-AD&D, alignment was inspired by the works of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson, and were limited to Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. More importantly, these reflected cosmic affiliations rather than moral leanings per se. That makes them less constrictive on character motive, and easier to relate to the setting. It’s less the difference between being nice or mean, and more like the difference between being Alliance or Horde. Adding the Good-Evil axis complicates this, but thinking of alignment as an affiliation lets Alignment Language make some small amount of sense. Planescape was probably the best D&D campaign setting for this, since everyone was a short jaunt away from the Outer Planes, which were manifestations of the alignments in the same way that the elemental planes represented the building blocks of the physical world. Truly being Lawful Good makes more sense if Tyr’s domain of Lawful Goodness is a place you can just go out and visit.

I don’t know that I want to be so overwhelmingly negative about alignments, but I do think that to the extent that the concept has merit, it hasn’t really been used to its full potential. Online conversations about old-school D&D too often seem to treat alignment as an excuse for DMs to dole out XP penalties, while in the more recent edition wars there seem to be a lot of complaints about how 4th Edition has deprived DMs of the ability to rob paladins of their powers[2]. I still like the various D&D approaches better than the Palladium approach of copying and pasting the same ranty alignment rules from a few decades ago into every single game, regardless of genre[3]. While alignments can sometimes produce interesting questions (and some amusing image memes), without giving it some cosmic significance or otherwise going beyond what they have been I feel like the whole concept can’t compare to good Aspects, Beliefs, Instincts, Values, Relationships, etc. in terms of informing how RPG characters relate to the world.

[1]Though amusingly, Erick Wujcik’s Mystic China (one of the few Palladium books I’ve kept) adds a Taoist alignment.

[2]Which strikes me as a little weird. Even if it’s not an assumption of the rules, when you have settings like Forgotten Realms where the gods are a little too involved in mortal affairs, a paladin who goes against his religious principles could have much worse things to worry about than whether or not he can still lay on hands.

[3]And I hate to sound quite so negative about Palladium (I had a lot of fun with their games in high school), but the treatment of alignments are a prime example of how the Megaversal system rules have basically been frozen in time since the early 80s.

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