Garry’s Article, The Conundrum Of Alignment, which appears as part one of this series, raised some excellent points. I agree with many of them, and felt that further discussion – and an alternative point of view – was merited, since I had reached radically different conclusions from much the same foundations. In parts 2 & 3 of this series, I’ll offer a rebuttal of sorts; and in parts 4 and 5, I’ll share with you some new ways to use alignment to enhance your games that I have derived from the arguements and logic of the earlier parts.
Alignment – A much-abused Tool
Alignment must be one of the most abused and misunderstood tools in the armoury of any campaign.
To some extent, that’s the fault of the game authors, who describe alignments For PCs in terms of fundamentalist absolutism – the “Fischer-Price” of ethical systems, as Garry puts it – and then broaden these definitions to ascribe the same absolutist perspectives to governments, nations, races, and organisations of all kinds. Clearly, absolutism and alignment scaling are subjects that we’ll need to examine.
And to some extent, this is the fault of GMs who want to read too much into alignment, oversimplifying complex moral and ethical questions into cliches, and teaching bad habits to their players; interpretation is another topic that has to be touched on, however boring it may be to those who have read endless debates on the subject in the past (sorry, Johnn).
And, in part, it’s the fault of hack-and-slash players who use alignment as an excuse for antisocial and amoral behaviour on the part of their characters. And it’s partly the fault of roleplayers who use their character’s alignment as an unlimited behavioral credit card and consider it good roleplaying, and GMs who applaud and reward this behaviour. Absolutely, the use of alignment as a characterisation and roleplaying tool are topics that need to be examined.
But mostly, the responsible parties are audiance-targetted marketing and paternalistic attitudes.
It is my contention that Garry’s article does an excellent job of enunciating many of the abuses that are possible with the D&D morals system called “Alignment”, but it blames the tools and not the workmen abusing those tools. I’ll start this reply by looking at why Alignment should be in the game at all.
All audiances are not the same
Adult games can contain adult concepts, deep and profound questions of morality and ambiguities of characterisation and discussions of Spirituality vs Doctrine; they can be ethically, intellectually, culturally, spiritually, and philosophically stimulating and challenging. Some people (and I’m one of them) find this use of the gaming vehicle to be fascinating and loads of fun.
Other people don’t enjoy this sort of thing, or aren’t sufficiently mature to be able to comprehend the issues, or oppose, for personal reasons, challenges to their beliefs in some of these arenas. I refer the reader to the discussion on Good People in the comments to
“Networks Of NPCs”, and to my post from earlier this year, “Moral Qualms On The Richter Scale”.
D&D, like any roleplaying game, has to appeal to all of these people; it has to be as capable of over-simplistic moral generalisation as any kids’ comic book in order to be considered acceptable to a juvenile market. And it has to be capable of supporting deep philosophical debates and moral conundrums in order to appeal to people like Garry and I. And it has to be capable of all the levels in between.
Alignment and Children
Children pose a special problem for RPGs, as intimated above. Would you run a game for children with the same moral complexities as one intended for adult participation? How about a game run to appeal to a beer-and-pretzels (I think that may misspelt, sorry) football crowd?
While RPGs can be used as an educational tool, introducing a child to concepts such as “a good person who has made a mistake” and “a bad person pretending to be a good person”, that sort of decision should be in the hands of the parents, and these ideas should be presented slowly and one at a time, with explanations, and the child given time to assimilate them. I’m talking about ages 6-10 here; with increasing age, you can get more sophisticated. Which is another way of saying that the younger your audiance, the more black-and-white you need your morality to be.
Now, D&D wasn’t designed with this target audiance in mind; it’s too complicated. The target demographic is everyone from 13 to 1300. So, with that wide a target audiance, how do you write your game?
Well, you can assume that the younger members will skip the bits that are too complicated; or you can assume that an older audiance can add as much nuance as they find necessary or desireable, and adopt the youngest target demographic as the default. This is a no-brainer, folks; any publisher will pick the latter course every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
The target demographic at which the game is aimed makes a simplistic moral structure manditory, if you’re going to have one at all – and the themes of “Good Guys against Bad Guys” are far too ingrained in our cultural landscape to ignore, so there has to be SOME sort of moral structure included.
Alignment and Religion-based Intolerance
In the late 1970s and 1980s, RPGs came in for some serious attention from religious organisations who saw them as promoting witchcraft and devil worship and pagan gods and violence and heaven knows what else. Granting that most of these groups had the very best of intentions (at least until proven otherwise), RPGs (and D&D in particular, as the most popular game) had to defend themselves. One of the most potent weapons in our hobby’s arsenal was Alignment, which stressed and emphasised that there were moral absolutes, that Good was Good and Evil was Bad, and that there was no compromise possible between the two.
The forces of religion-based intolerance for RPGs made it inevitable that the morals system called alignment would not only be fundamental to the game, but that it would be extremely simplistic and generalised.
Alignment and The Media
And then there’s the sensationalist media, which climbed onto the bandwagon. If I’m cynical towards the mass media these days, it’s because I saw what passed for “balanced reporting” twenty-five years ago, and extrapolated from that example of sensationalist distortion, through others, to a general perception. It takes serious journalistic credibility to win my unvarnished respect these days (there have been a few who have done so), and there have been a number of media sources that still have not regained their credibility in my eyes.
Defusing the sensationalist media mandated that D&D, in particular, had an intrinsic but simplistic moral code built into the system. The alternative was the draconian self-censorship that was forced on the comics industry earlier in the twentieth century (The Comics Code Authority) – you can get a quick introduction to the subject at Wikipedia. More details can be obtained from various books on the subject available through Amazon, such as The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America.
What would you rather have: Alignment restrictions that GMs can ignore at will, or even remove completely (as Garry has done) or a Game with no Gods (disrespectful, pagan), undead, devils, demons, etc?
Alignment and Public Acceptability
Of course, the real targets of both sensationalist media and misinformed/intolerant religious organisations weren’t the gamers themselves, it was the general public. Little Johnny needed something with which to calm the anxieties of nervous parents and teachers who became concerned about all this talk of strange creatures and stranger rituals, or who bought the line that people were psychologically harmed to the point of being unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and some fantasies are inherantly dangerous anyway… (don’t laugh – I heard those sentiments expressed on more than one occasion – about Rock & Roll, about Heavy Metal, about R-Rated movies, about Monster Movies, about Computer Games, and yes, about roleplaying, D&D in particular.
Once again, an alignment system becomes inevitable, and the more extremist it is, the better it suits application to these purposes.
So Alignment Is Inevitable?
Okay, so that’s all well-and-good for AD&D and original D&D before it, and maybe even Basic D&D after. But that was all thirty years ago, near enough as makes no difference; we live in a more enlightened age, right? Well, maybe not. Conspiracy Theories, Intelligent Design, Global Warming? The forces that assaulted the very concept of RPGs are still around, they’ve just found other targets – for now. Maybe some of the conspiracy theories are correct – there are conspiracies in the real world, after all. And maybe the theory of Intelligent Design is correct, but it’s not a science and shouldn’t be taught as one. And maybe global warming / climate change is real, but I’m not convinced – it all sounds too Chicken-Little-“The sky is falling” to me, and I’ve seen too many pronouncements about doom and gloom to take another without careful consideration. I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity, but I’m certainly NOT convinced that the need for Alignment, as a defence, has gone away.
The Roots Of Alignment
So where did the alignment concept come from, anyway? The various factions and special interests and concerned citizens against which RPGs had to contend weren’t the reason it was created, they are merely the reasons why it should still be there.
Extremist Morality: Black Hats vs White Hats
I think that Alignment comes from the experiences and popular world-view that surrounded the creators as children, filtered through some fiction, and were originally included to define a morals system that didn’t fall in a heap over someone running someone else through with a sword. It was, in other words, a technique for describing an essentially medieval moral standard to a modern audiance.
Movies: Westerns & Cop Shows & Horror Movies
The earliest D&D rules essentially reflect a 1950s morality of absolute black hats and absolute white hats – a morality that persisted in most mass media throughout the 70s. Think back to the Westerns of the era – the stranger riding into town and being deputised? That’s the prototypical PC. Remember the Cop Shows on TV at the time? The bad guys always got caught and the good guys always won. Again, those are the PCs. And lastly, think of all those B-grade Horror/Monster flicks – with a very few exceptions, the same pattern repeats once again.
The reason is quite simple: the audiance identifies with the heroes, and wants them to win, because when they do, the audiance vicariously shares in the victory. This is exactly what the original D&D experience offered its players.
Society changes only slowly, but the representations of social attitudes are reflected in the mass media even more slowly (for the most part – there are exceptions). That’s the case purely because to have a mass market appeal, these representations generally have to target the lowest common denomenator, and that necessarily includes people whose attitudes are considered old-fashioned or behind-the-times.
D&D may not initially have been designed to appeal to a mass market (though AD&D certainly was designed to appeal to a niche within a mass market), but the contemporary mass media that the authors were exposed to nevertheless reflected the mass market’s attitudes, and these inevitably served as sources of inspiration to the creators.
You don’t have to look very far even in the modern world to find real-life examples of oversimplified morality standards. The most blatant such example over the last few years has been terrorism – which I am absolutely NOT going to defend. Despite that absolute, it must be acknowledged that there are genuine grievances and historical antagonisms that were the ultimate triggers for much of the hatred that finds expression through terrorism, and that some responses to terrorist behaviour can only be considered to have been as barbaric as the acts against which they are supposed to defend.
The Cold War & The War On Drugs
Before terrorism as the “ultimate evil”, the role of the archvillains of real life for much of Western Society were reserved for Communists and Drug Dealers. Both of these oversimplifed moral questions, and a lot of government policy was then grounded in those generalisations, both good and bad. Some of it we’re still dealing with. I’m not pro-communist; their system failed for a reason, it simply couldn’t compete over the long haul, and they did some pretty atrocious things (especially to their own citizens) along the way. Nor am I a defender of the drug Barons – but manditory minimum sentences are a lot more complicated subject of discussion – a discussion that you can’t have if you are painted as being “soft on crime” the minute you raise the subject.
And before the Communists were the Axis Powers. The fascist regimes committed acts that fully justified the role in which they were cast, but take a look at the newsreels and government statements of the era, such as the “Why We Fight” propaganda movies by Frank Capra that were shown to every soldier, and tell me they don’t oversimplify the question. Indeed, it wasn’t until Schindler’s List that there was any hint of a suggestion that some of the supposed Nazis could be heroic. That’s how ingrained that particular “Good Guys against Bad Guys” moral standard became – it lasted, unchallenged, long after the western world stopped applying it to the German, Italian, and Japanese peoples.
And before the Fascists were the Germans, once again, this time in the guise of Kaiser William II and his allies. As you can see, there is something of a theme developing here: enemies in War are usually the subjects of Moral Oversimplification in the real world, but there’s always someone, and you can keep listing them, one after another, until you reach the point where the American Revolutionaries fought “the hated redcoats” and beyond. What, then, is the likelyhood that the same practices will not be in force in whatever psuedo-historical era in which the D&D game is set?
Myth And Legend
The same is true for many of the myths and legends on which the game is founded. Consider, for example, the myriad versions of the tales of King Arthur and the round table. Can anyone deny that King Arthur is not the achetype apon which the Lawful Good Paladin is founded, and his arch-enemy, Morgaine Le Faye, is therefore the prototype of Evil? It’s the same old good-guys-vs-bad-‘guys’ plot foundation all over again.
In fact, you can trace the concept of moral absolutism all the way back to the Bible. In comparison, most of the other early belief systems and associated mythologies – the Greek, Roman, and Norse, for example – did not have absolute good and evil.
I would suggest that far from being ‘unrealistic’, any game that did not posess an oversimplified moral structure is the game that is unrealistic, while games that DO have such a structure are more realistic – provided that these are explained properly and used properly by the GMs of the games in question.
‘Realism’ For A Modern Audiance
In fact, what Garry has labelled ‘realism’ is the imposition of a modern perspective on a game situation (and I do the same thing, so no criticism is intended). The oversimplified moral structures implied by the alignment system is, if anything, a compromise between a truly realistic depiction and a more realistic (by modern standards) morality analysis.
This is not a unique dilemna – any movie or television show or novel set in a ‘simpler age’ has to struggle with the same contradiction between the prevalant attitudes of the era and the lessons of sophistication and hindsight and cultural enlightenment that need to be respected in order to engage a modern audiance.
Take, for example, the profound changes with respect to racial equality that have entered the modern psyche over the last hundred years. In 1909, people would have been lynched for suggesting that a Black man could ever be US President – I don’t even think they had the Vote at that time in American history. Similarly, Gender equality was an issue which had barely taken central stage – Women had only recently been given the right to vote, and equality in the workplace wasn’t even an issue. That’s not to say that the attitudes of the era were right, just that those were were the attitudes of the era.
All this comes to a head when you consider roleplaying games designed to appeal to a modern audiance. AD&D, for example, gave female characters a lower Strength score than males, eventually sparking considerable debate, no matter how realistic it might have been. Perhaps if it gave them a commensurate increase in Charisma and Wisdom, this rules element would still be part of the game. D&D 3.0 was the first version of the game to do away with that institution, in a deliberate gesture towards sexual equality at the expense of the hard truth that females, in general, do not have the same physical strength as males.
Similarly, the respect with which Elves & Dwarves are treated by Humans (and have been in just about every edition that I can think of) is a modern attitude manifesting itself in contradiction to prevelant attitudes of the historical realities of the eras apon which the game setting was modelled.
Having conceded historical accuracy in favour of a more modern ‘realism’ in so many areas, the debate shifts to whether or not the game should abandon all pretence of historical referance and become wholly a modern expression of a fantasy world, or should some elements of historical accuracy be retained purely to make the game more ‘realistic’?
So profound is inherant contradiction that it is, in truth, the heart and soul of those endless debates about the signficance of this alignment or that alignment. It is the difficult choice between realistic characterisation vs a realistic historical basis – calling one solution more ‘realistic’ than the other is oversimplifying the arguement in exactly the same way that Alignment oversimplifies personal morality.
Labels are the tools of Bias
I have just one more point to make (before moving on to contradict myself in the next post of this series)!
Garry makes the point that “no sane person identifies themselves as ‘evil’.” I completely agree, but would ask exactly who it is that is indentifying themselves as ‘evil’? At worst, characters of evil alignment are stating that “narrow and blinkered minds, locked into biased perspectives, may label what I do as ‘evil'”. The rules system, and associated text, inherantly assume that the PCs will be “good guys” and not evil would-be world conquerers.
So much trouble has arisen – such as the debates that Garry seeks to avoid, and Johnn is tired of, over ‘evil’ vs ‘Evil’ – because the labels applied are absolutist and biased towards one particular side of the alignment equation. They aren’t couched in behavioural or characterisation terms, they are described in terms of moral judgement. This one fact, more than any other, is (in my opinion) responsible for more of the abuse and misuse of Alignment, and for Garry’s reasons for rejecting the system, and for the endless debates over trivia that miss the real point, than any other. It’s those labels that I do away with, and (where necessary), the descriptions that go with them.
The result is a system that makes complex characterisation easier and faster, and yet it still permits oversimplification back into a propaganda-oriented terminology by both sides of the moral question.
In part III of this massive multi-part series, I take another perspective on the whole issue, and discuss whether or not Alignment really IS unneccessary.