Thursday, July 9, 2020

Managing Your Alignments

Here's a restatement of the last post, regarding alignment and cosmology.  The position goes like this - as the modern D&D community re-evaluates the use of categorically evil humanoids, people are questioning whether the game actually needs alignment at all.  I'm not invested in using alignment at the player character or behavioral level, but alignment is hard-wired into the cosmology of the game world.  The outer planes, deities, and extra-planar races like demons, devils, angels, and more, are all predicated on cosmic conflict.  We need to account for that if we're going to tear down the old monuments.

Today's post is a survey of approaches for managing alignment.  I'll include how I like to do it these days, tackling both the player behavior question and the cosmology questions.  I prefer to minimize the behavioral aspects of alignment while preserving alignment as a cosmological factor.  I don't like adjudicating Alignment as Morality because I play D&D as a beer-and-pretzels casual game and we have better things to debate at the table.  Players are ill-equipped for ethical arguments.  What is an evil act?  Is torturing the bad guy in order to save the city okay?  Does Lawful Good mean turning in the hungry waif who stole bread to feed her starving brother?  D&D's simplified definitions are inadequate to tackle these types of questions consistently.  If no two tables can adjudicate a "rules" question the same way, it probably shouldn't be a rule.  5E has eliminated most of the punishing mechanical impacts of alignment for the player characters.

Here are some different ways I've encountered alignment through the years, plus my current preference.

Gygaxian Morality
1st Edition AD&D has detailed descriptions of the nine alignments, laying out the Law vs Chaos axis and the Good vs Evil axis, and then providing a description of the behaviors for each alignment.  The best I can say about the 9-fold alignment system from 1E AD&D is it launched the cosmology of the game, with all of the outer planes, deities, and beings tied to the different alignments, incorporating classic elements from folklore and religion.  As a tool for guiding player behavior, it's a bit of a mess.  Consider Lawful Good:

"Lawful Good creatures are convinced that order and law are absolutely necessary to assure good, and that good is best defined as whatever brings the most benefit to the greater number of decent, thinking creatures and the least woe to the rest".  Does this help us answer questions about whether torture is okay in order to save lives, or whether the waif stealing bread should be turned in to the sheriff?  If ever there was an alignment that calls for black and white rules for behavior, it'd be Lawful Good, but this definition sounds awfully utilitarian and subjective.  Furthermore, there were significant mechanical penalties in 1E for not living up to your alignment, so the answer very much matters!  Paladins would lose their status, clerics lost their spells, druids stopped being druids, and other characters could lose a character level.  Very painful.

The "Neutral" alignments drove me nuts.  Anyone that wrote down Neutral (especially Chaotic Neutral) was basically signaling, "hey I want to do horrible, evil things, but don't actually want to come out and call myself evil".  Of course players would also try the classic dodges, such as "Hey Petro the Paladin and Carl the Cleric, can you two go into the next room and start setting up a camp?  The rest of us just want a few minutes of quality time alone with our new prisoner..."

Alignment as Attitude
I prefer the BX system from the 80's as a rules set in most contexts, including alignment.  BX simplified alignment to Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic (which I believe was the original approach started back in OD&D) but also presented it more as an attitude or tendencies.  Lawful characters tend to support rules and civilization.  Chaotic characters tend to look out for themselves, act on sudden whims.

5E kept the 9-fold alignment system, from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, but alignments are just attitudes and tendencies like BX, not moral straight-jackets with punishing mechanical penalties.  The one exception I've seen in 5E is related to paladins and oaths.  Although there are no specific alignment restrictions on Paladins, the oaths strongly signal a direction, and the game hands the referee discretion to remove a paladin's powers if they're ignoring the tenets of their oath and not seeking atonement.  It's fairly subjective, but does hearken back to the Medieval romance and literary roots of the paladin and is somewhat similar to the 1E paladin.

5E does explicitly recognize that beyond the prime material plane, alignment is a cosmic force that defines the outer planes and defines the existence of fiends and celestials.

Alignment as Ethical Philosophy
Sometime back I dropped a review of Alexander Macris's Arbiter of Worlds e-book here.  It covers a range of topics about running a tabletop game or building a campaign setting; the appendix covers alignment and describes an approach to apply classic ethical philosophies to the 9-fold system, from Kant to Mills to Nietsche.  If you're a fan of philosophy and want a system to deal with ethical problems and alignment, this is a good place to start.  For instance, Alex defines Law as rules-based (deontological ethics) whereas Chaos is consequential or utilitarian.  A Lawful paladin would never murder, under any circumstances, because murder is against their rules; the Chaotic character is willing to rationalize "the ends justify the means" and focus on the consequences or outcomes of their action (robbing from the rich is okay to a CG character but not to a LG character, for instance).  Anyway, my players would firmly be in the camp of "alignment as attitude" anyway, and not interested in getting the calls ethically correct, so this isn't an approach I'd use - but it was a super interesting read.  If you've ever seen the TV show "The Good Place", it covered similar ground regarding judging "goodness" and highlights the difficulty applying a scoring standard to behavior.

Alignment as Allegiance

One of my favorites aspects of the early OSR was the re-examination and discussion of the D&D source literature from Appendix N.  By reading Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, Moorcock's stories of Elric, and Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, I saw where these ideas of a cosmic struggle between Law and Chaos originated.  They're well worth reading!  Plus Poul Anderson introduces the D&D style troll, the paladin, the holy sword, Chaos - if you like the origins of things, it's a must read.  In a Law vs Chaos regime, the ethical considerations of Good vs Evil are less important than being on a side - standing for Law and civilization, or Chaos and destruction.  Alignment as "picking a side in the cosmic struggle" harmonizes closest to the BX and OD&D approach of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic and the war game roots of the hobby.

How Do I Do It?
The theme I'm most concerned with is the world building aspects of alignment, and how it defines the cosmic struggle.  For a heroic fantasy game like D&D, I like the idea of powerful forces struggling in the background, whether it has immediate impact on low level play or not.  It's not about grading player behavior; if they're jerks to NPCs, for instance, I'd rather let the setting express natural consequences (or not) rather than smashing down with an alignment hammer.

Therefore, in my homebrew settings, I use the term "unaligned" to described people.  Alignment of Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, is reserved for supernatural entities, or characters who have embraced supernatural powers.  There is a cosmic conflict between Law and Chaos, with Law representing powers of creation and order, and Chaos the forces of destruction.  Angels, devils, and similar Judeo-Christian elements fall on the side of Law, and demons and Cthulhu-monsters are Chaotic.  Planets and habitable worlds have nature spirits that embody the Neutral alignment.  It keeps the Monster Manual intact, and lets me explain why angels and devils might team up to stop the flood of demons from the Outer Dark.  I tend to put all the traditional pantheons into Law because of their divine nature.  Alignment is about power sources and which side of the cosmic conflict.  Odin and Zeus would team up to thwart Cthulhu and Demogorgon on the cosmic scale, but in the absence of Chaos, have no issue throwing down with each other.

Humans and similar character races only display an alignment if they embrace supernatural forces, most commonly by being a spellcaster.  Clerics are Lawful, magic using classes are Chaotic, and druids, aligned with the world spirits, are Neutral.  By embracing other-worldly forces, they've permanently changed their aura (detectable by an Alignment spell).  Everyone else is unaligned, and their morality is up to their personal code and beliefs. It's really simple, and very close to the Lamentations of the Flame Princess approach to alignment.

How many of you are still using the traditional 1E AD&D alignment, complete with level loss, alignment languages, and class restrictions?


  1. We never tracked alignment back in the day when we played 1e. That being said, I still refer to the 9 alignments as a reference for how characters and NPC will tend to react. LE, unquestioning follower invested in making their way up the social hierarchy. CE, only respects power and will undercut the organization for personal gain. NE will will weigh the cost benefit of their actions on a longer time scale than CE, for some examples.

    1. Using AL as a short-hand for personality traits for NPC's is a good use!

  2. Thanks for another interesting post. I updated my own discussion of the genesis of D&D alignment to include a link to this entry, too.

    About your second paragraph, I couldn't agree more. Most players are not able to use alignment constructively and probably are not interested in discussions of morality when they'd rather be imagining escapist adventures.

    Your way of doing it sounds great. Make alignment something cosmic. It's actually very much like the Warhammer Fantasy RPG (at least in the first edition, the one I know). There, the default for humans was "Neutral," not because they aren't good, but because they aren't aligned with cosmic forces. I think that is the last game in which I used alignment for any real purpose, a long time ago.

    In a way, you have rejected character alignment but accepted the D&D multiverse. In my view, that has to be just about the only way to make it work. I'm going to recommend it to my 5e-playing son.

  3. utilitarianism chaos?
    bwah ha ha
    hedonistic calculus and calculating units of pleasure and division of said pleasure sounds pretty lawful. Alex Ideas and personality make me run a million miles away

  4. I'll go back and make sure I didn't mischaracterize Alex's essay. Your comment highlights the challenge with tying morality to alignment. I can see how one player could view a compassionless, rules-based approach to utilitarian decisions as "lawful neutral" whereas a different player takes a more absolute view that rules are rules (lawful is the 10 commandments approach to judging actions). In his philosophical take he put the consequentialist philosophies in Chaos (sometimes murder is bad, sometimes murder is good). My 18 year old is a philosophy nerd and also disagrees with Alex's take!

  5. I let the players engage with alignment if they choose (and mostly they don't).

    For my own cosmology, I use the original Law-Chaos dichotomy but I conceptualize it as a spectrum between the twin evils of Tyranny and Anarchy. Any "good" has to be some kind of balance.

  6. Your "How do I do it" could be a copy and paste of my own "How do I do it".

  7. I like alignments as morality. I don’t think you should judge them too strictly, but it gives a shorthand way of describing a character’s moral attitudes. I think it’s one of the reasons D&D has been so popular for so long. It gives players a hook for getting into their characters. It does not come up that often in play, we don’t spend a ton of time discussing it. The Paladin code of conduct is much more restrictive, and much more likely to come up in play. Frequently when this subject comes up people mention the Paladins behavior, and how they don’t like how artificial it is etc. I think this is due to the code of conduct, not the Lawful Good alignment, which by the way I don’t think over the long term, is much more restrictive than the others.