This entry is part 3 in the series Focussing On Alignment

In part one of this 5-part examination, we presented a guest article by Garry Stahl, “The Conundrum Of Alignment”. In Part two, “A Neccessary Evil?”, I discussed the justification for alignment being part of the rules, looked at the historical precedent for oversimplified moral arguements, and concluded that the real problem with alignment was misuse attributable to the judgemental and morally-extremist labels that had been used. In this part of the series, I examine the other side of the coin, then re-examine whether or not alignment really should be part of the game. I’ll then offer alternative ways of using the Mechanics of Alignment to satisfy both sides of the question, and transform alignment into a tool for characterisation, for the generation of scenarios, and even of whole campaigns. In Parts 4 and 5, I’ll share some ways to use those mechanics to enhance your games by giving some examples from my own campaigns.

Counterpoint: Complex Morality oversimplified

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In touching on the historical foundations of an alignment system, I showed that oversimplified moral positions are more historically accurate than a complex moral code better suited to modern times. There are good reasons for this; first, moral behaviour was often linked to acceptance and protection of authority, and second, the lack of education required a simplification of the issues.

If it is accepted that Monarchs rule by Divine Right, then it must be accepted that moral behaviour requires obediance and loyalty to the Monarch. It was therefore in the interests of the authorities to simplify moral questions – in theory, the Monarch shoulders the burdons of deciding what is right and proper. Since no confusion can be permitted, lest the authority of the Monarch be called into question, definitions of what is moral must be simplified to the point of absurdity to ensure that they can be unhesitatingly applied in all situations.

Similarly, much of what little education existed in the Middle Ages was in the hands of the clergy, because they were the most learned people available to teach. Of course, as the moral guides and guardians of society, they were hardly going to instill doubts about the status quo in people, or encourage indeoendant thinking! On the contrary, doctrine was inherantly simplistic, and has stayed so ever since – so much so that many now feel that the churches have lost touch with modern thinking.

Nor are these the only forces at work that will tend, even in a fantasy campaign, to oversimplify complicated moral questions, just as they have throughout history. War has already been identified as a common cause of such oversimplification; another which has been a factor throughout human history has been religious intolerance.

There are differences between an authentic medieval society and that of a game, but enough of the fundamentals remain consistant between the two that it must be expected that at least some of the authority figures, if not all of them, will oversimplify complex moral issues.

Extremist Morality in a Gaming context

None of this is necessarily a bad thing within a game. An oversimplified moral structure makes the campaign background more accessable, and more relevant, to the Players, who will often find it easier to identify with. In games with children, as discussed last time, these things should be kept fairly simple; but in adult games, an excessively-simplified moral structure is an open invitation to explore moral questions and issues that would otherwise be too serious or potentially offensive.

There are some issues that, historically, have been moral according to the accepted morals of the time and place, but have since become moral anathema according to accepted wisdom. I sometimes call these issues Moral Chameleons. By linking a fantasy race or subculture to one of the key roles in these issues, the questions can be asked in a whole new context. Below, I’ve listed seven of these evergreen Moral Chameleons, but to some extent, any moral question can be used in this way.

Moral chameleon issue #1: Slavery
An old favorite with so many possibilities that not even in 29 years gaming have I explored them all. Is it wrong to enslave Machines? How about zombies? Demons? Is it wrong to liberate enslaved demons? Where does slavery end and social symbiosis start? These suggestions just scratch the surface…

Moral chameleon issue #2: The Crusades
If you accept the moral authority of a religion – any religion – then you are honour-bound to support that church’s attempts to educate the heathens – no matter what it takes… is the same true of an economic principle? How about polluting industries which harm a neighbouring country – is the victim entitled to invade the offender? Even the US-Soviet cold war can be interpreted as falling into this category, as can the Korean and Vietnam wars – none of which ever caused any controversy, did they?

Moral chameleon issue #3: The Inquisition
This evergreen could be considered the internal equivalent of the Crusades. How far is an organisation – be it religious, civil, or social – entitled to go to protect itself from internal corruption? When ‘real’ demons and devils are involved? If the Inquisition is merely searching out human fallability and doubt, you get a very different answer to that which results if they are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a real enemy.

Moral chameleon issue #4: Loki
Norse mythology describes Loki as a mischief-maker, playing pranks with no regard for the consequences; when the chips are down, he usually comes up with some way to atone. Yet, during Ragnerok, he is counted amongst the enemies of the Aesir – without explanation. Stephen Brust explored a similar issue in his novel, ‘To Reign In Hell’, which contains the wonderful quote from the author in it’s back cover blurb, “From all of my readings on the revolt of the Angels, two things are clear: God is omnipotent, and Satan is not a fool. There seems to be a contradiction here…” Any anti-hero can be considered in the same light, and raises many of the same questions about the fundamental nature of evil, and evil acts.

Moral chameleon issue #5: Weapons Of Mass Destruction
Many countries have accused the US of hypocrasy over it’s political position on Weapons of Mass Destruction. The existance – or even the possibility – of such weapons always brings moral questions with it in an overhead compartment. “Are we justified in having these weapons? Are we justified in using them? How much is a victory worth, not just in the short-term, but centuries or millennia from now?”

Moral chameleon issue #6: Freedom Fighters
It has often been said that one man’s revolutionary is another man’s Freedom Fighter, and the questions of justification, and indirect warfare, always bear inspection. Is a violent and murderous campaign of liberation justifiable against an oppressive conqueror? How about a flawed but well-meaning government? Or one intent on acts of Genocide for what it considers the greater good? Robin Hood, the French Resistance, the IRA, Al Quida? Are there moral differences, and if so, what are they?

Moral chameleon issue #7: Prejudice (Racial or Class)
And, of course, there is this old favorite. Every case of opposition to racial or class prejudice rests on the assumption of equality – but in a fantasy campaign, that is not necessarily the case. Is prejudice justifiable against a superior species that would otherwise assume a position of dominance? How about against a species that considers your species as a food source, or that does not consider your species to be sentient?

Philosophers can spend decades wrestling with these thorny issues. Expecting to resolve them in a roleplaying game is going too far – but putting PCs into a position where they have to decide for themselves what is right, then justify that decision and wear the consequences, can be interesting, entertaining, and enlightening, for all concerned.

Alignment: Unneccessary?

And so we come to the crux of the matter: no matter how necessary it is for it to be part of the rules, is alignment really necessary in a campaign?

The answer is clearly no; Garry’s Campaigns stand as demonstration that D&D can be run without alignment, and in comparison to a campaign in which Alignment is misused, that might even be a beneficial step. I can agree with Garry that much, at least.

But I have to ask: is getting rid of Alignment a better solution than adapting the game mechanisms to benefit the campaign instead of harming it? You certainly couldn’t call Garry’s solution taking the easy way out; he describes very clearly the depth to which it is integrated within the system. I remain unconvinced, especially since the alternative is relatively easy and is profoundly beneficial to the campaign.

Absolutism: Alignment is not an excuse

I want to digress for a moment, at this point, to agree with something that Garry implied in one of his reasons for removing Alignment, and which I have described as an abuse of the Alignment subsystem.

One of the most common fallacies is that alignment dictates what actions are acceptable roleplay for a character who has been labelled and categorised into one of the nine defined archetypes. I consider that putting the cart well and truly ahead of the horse. Alignments should be a tool to help classify what attitudes the character will find acceptable – a subtle but profound difference.

The first mandates strict accordance with the most absolute and extremist interpretation of behavioural norms; the other treats alignment as an overall summary of the type of person the character wants to be, or tries to be. The reasons for that objective, and how well the character lives up to it, and where he fails to measure up, and where he perceives that he fails to measure up, are the things that distinguish one person from another.

Some classes have alignment requirements, not to enforce some narrow-minded zealotry that constricts and constrains and stultifies roleplay, but because that group likes their members to have a particular perspective or attitude, because that is what they perceive the Class as representing – an ideal, not a recruiting parameter. It’s all in-game, not a subjective reality. Within those limits, anything is fair game. The man who will help a friend in trouble, who hates lying because he’s bad at it, who hates being lied to because he’s paranoid, who attacks those he considers direct threats to his race and way of life, the Klansman – he’s Lawful Good. And so is the man who works hard, gives to charity, goes to church on Sundays, obeys every law and every commandment, and tries to arrest the first man if that’s the responsibility he has accepted.

Because Absolutism is unrealistic. Angels and Devils might be absolutes, but people are… “fuzzy”, when it comes to alignment. Worse, absolutism limits the amount of fun and interest that a game can contain. That’s not to say that there aren’t good people and bad people and generous people and greedy people – there are. But good people are just as capable of committing atrocities if they are convinced that it serves the greater good.

Alignment should NEVER be a straightjacket to characterisation. I prefer to treat it as a tool, like a sharp knife – useful, but dangerous if mishandled.

So how should it be employed, in my opinion? Pay attention, folks, because this is what this whole article has been building towards…

Alignment as a Campaign Tool

The first thing that has to be done is to recognise that the labels given to the existing alignments are prejudicial and biased, and that they will need to be replaced. That sweeps away all the fluff and endless debate and gets down to brass tacks. The second step is to determine exactly what it means to “have” or “be” a particular alignment.

By adopting this position, however, we gain an additional benefit: it means that the interpretation of alignment can be tailored to fit, and contribute to, each individual campaign, reinforcing key conceptual elements. These definitions then flow through to the different means of scaling alignment – to governments, and to races, and so on – to individually tailor every encounter, in a subtle but sometimes profound manner, to that campaign. They define exactly what it means when a character casts “Detect Evil”.

My early interpretation: The Legislative (In-Game) Approach
My first campaign was very much created from a pro-Lawful-Good approach (I had not yet realised the need to alter the alignment labels), making it very traditional in many ways. Where it differed from the abusive approaches I had seen other GMs adopt was that I stated up front that these measured attitudes to authority and civic responsibility and, in general, to the laws of the land. Immediatly, this transformed the alignment definitions from absolutes to relative values, and permitted conflicts between characters who felt equally passionately that different approaches to the Kingdom’s problems were in “the people’s best interests”. By instinct or luck, I had managed to avoid the alignment quagmire.

What’s more, I also specified that Paladins did not see the world as relative values, but as extremes – though they were able to tolerate, to a personal degree, the foibles of others; while absolutism was a purity of purpose that clerics aspired to but rarely achieved. The players in question had great fun taking these cues and integrating them into their roleplay – arguing with each other about minitia, the priest talking a hard line about abstemption but being the first to persuade the Paladin to forgive the foibles of the weak every time one of the other characters did something to offend his delicate sensibilities. At the same time, the Paladin was the backbone and stiff upper lip of the party, the glue that held them together anytime things became difficult – even when everybody and everything that he respected was revealed to be a sham, a corrupt shell; that only fueled his zeal to restore what he percieved as the tarnished honor of his Order.

The Third Axis: Intensity Of Belief
The other thing that I did was to postulate that an extreme position on the alignment chart reflected extremity of objectives, not strength of convictions. Most alignment maps equate the two; I put intensity of belief on a third axis, at right angles to the other two. That meant that a character could be Lawful Good in his convictions, but extremely morally weak, forever failing and repenting. The overall shape was that of an inverted cone (following the logic that the weaker a character’s morality was, the more ‘beige neutral’ they were; alignment boundaries descended vertically, and simple 3D geometry defined relationship strengths in terms of alliance and antagonism.

It also meant that the closer one came to neutral, the easier it was to slip off the peak to one side or another and incur an alignment shift.

All this proved to be more work than necessary, but it remains an elementary example of the type of Alignment treatment that I am advocating. Complex morality and moral questions and rich characterisation are not excluded by a correctly-utilised alignment system.

Alignment as motivation not control
None of this works if alignments represent totally dogmatic perspectives, in other words if they are used to control or restrict the PCs interpretation of their character’s behaviour under the circumstances present within the campaign. This usage of the alignment infrastructure of the rules requires that the PCs (and NPCs from the available player-races) have free will; this is about the character’s philosophy and personal ambitions of self-improvement, not about telling characters how they should or would act. When the third axis was included, this could be taken as read, especially if the real extremes were restricted to specific NPC archetypes – Gods and Devils and other supernatural creatures; but without it, it needs to be spelt out.

A character’s ideals are described by their alignment; how closely they live according to those ideals is an entirely seperate question. But deviate from your ideals too much or too often, and your ideals themselves become compromised – and the result is an alignment shift.

Reinventing the Labels

So, let’s take a look at reinventing the alignment labels and how that can work. I’m providing two examples for each alignment axis, but thought I’d talk about some general principles first.

One axis will always point toward some behavioural trait that is considered moral, while the other will point towards the opposite trait. The first will be the group that includes celestials and other angelic beings, while the latter will include demons and devils.

The complimentary axis will point toward a different behavioural trait that is usually considered desirable by some and the opposite end will point toward its antithesis. The difference between these two behavioural traits will define the “racial” personality differences between “Demons” and “Devils”.

The position along either axis will define the ratios of one quality to the other in the personality of the being, but not the intensity or reliability of those personality traits, which will differ from character to character.

Reinventing the Labels – “Good Vs Evil”: Altruism vs Selfishness
These are my standard substitutions for these inherantly biased and judgemental labels. Altriusm implies a level of generosity, willingness to put others ahead of yourself, etc, while it’s opposite places the individual ahead of the group. One interesting campaign premise inverts these with respect to reality but not with respect to social beliefs. The result is a situation in which the “beautiful” have seduced society for their own benefit, while those who want to liberate society (and themselves) are the downtrodden exiles of the angels, cursed and corrupted to render them abhorrent to “civilized” people. PCs will start off with the normal social beliefs, but questions will start to add up, eg an angel incinerating a helpless cult leader captured by the PCs just as he was about to start answering questions about his recent activities.

Reinventing the Labels – “Good Vs Evil”: Honour vs Expediency
Another option that I’m saving for a future campaign. This one is interesting because the two extremes don’t quite mean the same thing, and imply different aspects of their extreme opposite; Honour vs Dishonour, and the long view as opposed to a short-term advantage. These in turn offer differently-flavoured interpretations of Intelligence – Logic vs Intuition. The result is a blending of Star Wars (‘The quick and easy path leads to the Dark Side’) and Star Trek. It also means that these are not necessarily antagonistic qualities; if a combination of the two can be focussed on a problem, it could prove more effective than either on their own – or, if the two compete and interfere, it could conceivably be worse. The campaign, if and when it eventually happens, will also reflect these disparate principles – every time someone of the Honour Alignment goes for the Quick solution instead of the long view, things will start going wrong for them (using rules for bad luck), and vice-versa for the Expedient. The bad guys will be about instinct and inflicting maximum damage Right Now to the opposition, and will probably start of in the superior position – The Empire is in charge, not the Rebellion. There are still many details to be worked out, but I have years!

Reinventing the Labels – “Law vs Chaos”: Pattern & Ritual (aka ‘Order’) vs Intuition & Instinct (aka Chaos)
If it weren’t for the overlap in implied meanings, I might very well have used this combination for the complimentary alignment axis of the “Evil Empire” campaign discussed in the previous paragraph. I might still use it, but that implies a trend on the extremes of this axis to coincide with those of the previous axis – Expediant characters would trend toward Intuition and Instinct and away from Pattern and Ritual – it’s as though the two weren’t at right angles, or perhaps that these axes aren’t straight lines. But I’m not convinced that, as a combination of complimentary axes, these will accommodate satisfactory play well.

Taking this axis on it’s own merits, it suggests a dichotomy of the arcane – the difference between Wizardry and Sorcery. It also suggests a more regimented government and social structure (Guilds, Nobility, etc) vs a more anarchic state (Democratic?) This would work well as a conflict not between Heaven and Hell, but between D&D Devils and Demons. Or perhaps between Dragons and Demons, that would be fun! With the PCs, of course, opposing both, and caught in the middle.

Reinventing the Labels – “Law vs Chaos”: Protectionism vs Independance
I was going to use “Socially-acceptable Faith vs Agnosticism & Heathen Beleifs”, which is the Law/Chaos axis used in my Fumanor campaigns, and which is dominant over the Altruism vs Selfishness axis, but instead I decided at the last minute to illustrate a point by taking a completely different moral dichotomy, one that is only vaguely related to “Law vs Chaos”. Protectionism is about taking the weight of the world from the shoulders of those not prepared to bear it – wrapping the mortals in cotton wool and never letting them get hurt too badly, save for the occasional demonstration of ‘tough love’, while it’s counterpart is about pushing the kiddies out of the nest and forcing them to stand on their own two feet as quickly as possible, regardless of how harsh and callous the results might be. You could even describe them as Maternal vs Paternal, in some respects. To make matters interesting, the absence of free will implied by Protectionism makes it suitable for a repressive, controlled, and manipulative society – Fascism or the old Soviet political system. This would make the Demons the good guys and the Devils the bad – which is so similar in concept that this might even be complimentary if these replaced the “Good/Evil” axis.

Alignment as a tool for characterisation & scenario development

Just as Alignment can be used as a tool for the generation of campaigns, or for the translation of abstract campaign concepts into behavioural influances, so it can be used as a tool for characterisation. The GM should be able to pick a topic, any topic, of importance to the characters, and lay out an alignment axis between the two extreme perspectives. The characters each then have a choice: their position on that axis can either be informed by their previously-defined alignment, or can be in contrast to it. Whenever I do this, I like to put some variation on the question on the other axis. Deciding these issues helps form a more concrete picture of the character and his personality.

Instead of generating cardboard cutouts, alignment is suddenly transformed into a tool for the generation of complex personalities!

Greed: Debts and Promises
For example, let’s look at one of the question of Greed. As I described earlier, I use Selfishness instead of the term “Evil” (though Altruistic Characters may describe the actions of extremely Selfish characters as “Evil,” reflecting a values judgement by their characters). One aspect of Selfishness that the PCs are sure to encounter is the phenomenon of Greed, which can be examined from two perspectives: How the character reacts to debts he owes, and how he reacts to debts owed him, each of which makes a perfectly acceptable Issue Axis for characterisation purposes.

The Issues Axes might look like this: Align 2

Now, it might be that an Altruistic character – “Lawful Good” in the judgemental base system – would automatically trend towards the top point, indicating a balanced perspective in terms of chasing what is owed and letting those who claim not to be able to pay have “more time” endlessly – but, apon closer inspection, and operating under the theory that any character can be flawed and imperfect, absolutely ANY of these are compatable with an Altruistic perspective. If the player simply puts an “X” somewhere on the Issue Axis for where the character is – and a circle for where he thinks the character WANTS to be, or thinks he should be – suddenly, we have an interesting character that’s got a story to tell, with opinions that the GM can play on with future encounters, and a direction of growth. What’s more, there can be various links formed between the two axes as ’cause and effect’ – for example, the character might wish to pay his debts promptly, but because he’s an ‘Easy Touch’, he never has the money to do so. That places two of the character’s ideals in conflict – always meaty for roleplaying purposes. Does he really have to put that widow who can’t pay the rent out on the street?

At the same time, the opposite alignment – Selfish – can apply equally to a hard-nosed businessman, who agressively chases what he is owed and always pays his debts promptly – or to a slumlord, who chases what’s coming to him but pays out as little as possible, as infrequently as possible. A Selfish character can even justify being an “Easy Touch” if he then goes looking for ways to exploit the situation to his own advantage – one token of generosity makes a formidible excuse for total ruthlessness in other aspects of his life. Remember the MASH episode where Charles (the blueblood) gives a gift of expensive food to the Orphanage – a family tradition – only to be distressed when they sell it for blankets?

Make a new Issue map every time a new issue is encountered
A series of issue maps is a great way of summarising personality aspects. They can make it easier for the player to get in character, to be consistant, to formulate character goals and idiosyncrosies. They can also be a source of inter-party friction between characters that’s both fun and interesting to roleplay, and the GM can use them as a guage to the character’s involvement in the scenarios he runs; if a character can go a full level without adding one, or altering an existing one, it’s a pretty good sign that the character would be pretty blase about the adventures he’s been on lately – an attitude that might also be reflected in how much the player is enjoying himself.

I’ve generated a free 1-page PDF suitable for characters to log issue maps for their characters, or you can devise your own. You can download the colour version or a black-and-white version. To use the issue map, give a copy to each of the PCs (and any key NPCs that are with them) as an adjunct to their character sheets. Each time they confront a moral or social issue, the operator of the character decides whether or not the character cares about the issue, chooses labels accordingly, marks on the resulting alignment chart where his character stands and where he thinks he should stand, and makes any explanatory notes that are needed. It takes only ten or fifteen seconds unless the character (or the operator) is “undecided” – in which case he can play it that way, and discuss the issue from his character’s point of view either later, or even in character within the game. It’s certainly a more productive use of time than the usual sort of side chatter that occurs when play slows down, and it’s even fairly reasonable that the subject would come up around the campfire.

Alignment Scaling

At long last, we’re on the home straight and sprinting for the finish line. The next item on my topic list is the question of scaling. Garry contends that alignment doesn’t scale; I concede that if any sort of absolutist interpretation is used, there are too many disparate componants to a complex definition, and too many individuals with non-conformist opinions, for it scale properly – but that only makes alignment more valuable as a tool when the asolutist, all-inclusive interpretations are rejected.

Once the labels provided by the system have been replaced with something more appropriate and more useful, the issues sheet can be used by the GM as a worksheet to define a more complex, realistic, and satisfying system that absolutely scales from the individual up to the collective – and back down again.

Take an issues sheet, label the first alignment box according to the standard alignment definitions you have defined for within the campaign and call it “overall attitudes”. You can then use the others to define the stances of specific subsectors of the population, where these are different from the “accepted standard”; you can use them to define attitudes on specific issues confronting the society; you can even define, seperately and side-by-side for comparison, “official policy”, “public opinion”, and even specific population segments with a different attitude.

To scale up from an individual, you simply define how that individual stands out from the general society in opinions and character, and that specifies which of the general attitudes that the individual reflects and which attitudes are different – the referee then can specify the prevailing opinions, and then summarise the bottom line.

To scale down from a society, the operator makes the same decisions: On what subjects does he disagree? On what subjects does he agree, but fails to live up to the ideal?

The same technique applies when scaling up from a local society to a racial profile, or vice-versa. It turned a lot of heads when I defined Orcs as being essentially altruistic in nature in Fumanor, but from their racial perspective, they were; the ‘objectionable’ things that the race had done within the game were all acts committed in furtherance of their race’s collective survival and prosperity. But they did not respect the common social opinion, and the common social opinion did not respect their opinion – they were a counterculture with a different set of values to the mainstream, but the typical Orc was no more “evil” than the typical Paladin. Individuals, of course, were a completely different question.

Detection and Alignment Languages

Detection was always a thorny issue, dependant on the definitions employed for the different axial traits of the alignment system, until a few distinctions were made. Arcane Magic, for example, detects alignment in terms of recent actions in my campaigns, while Clerical Magic is more about fundamental attitudes. With the liberation of the system from the straightjacket of alignment controlling behaviour instead of reflecting it, and the rejection of the inherantly biased and judgemental labels and definitions provided by the core rules, the detection systems are also liberated to reflect the natures of the techniques and purposes being employed to detect the alignment.

At the same time, the protection spells, and all other aspects of alignment interaction with the rules, also assume subtly-different flavours. If you use the label “Altruism” instead of the judgemental “Good”, then an attack does “+2 vs altruism” instead of “+2 vs good”; a magic circle might be a “protection vs altruism” instead of a “protection vs good”. The use and desireability of these effects by characters changes, as does the implications of casting them, and the dangers of using them as a guide to intentions or actions that can be expected. Instead of telling characters what the subjects are going to do, they give clues – but characters remain individuals. That means that only the characters most prone to extremist perspectives are likely to actually utilise these spells except under unusual circumstances.

Conclusion – for now

So there it is – a method of transforming alignment from a binding restriction to a tool that is so valuable that you will wonder where it’s been all this time.

In part 4 of this series, to be posted next week, I will discuss a more advanced technique to give an even more robust political infrastructure to any organisation in “Flavours Of Neutrality”, while part 5 (to be posted at the same time) will offer for consideration an opposing perspective to the traditional D&D labels in “Dark Shadows”.

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