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Introduction to Each Post in This Series
On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.
Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |
Oh, shit. It’s on now. It’s a good thing my blog isn’t popular. I’d get hammered if this went viral.
What happens when a lawful good, mortal character picks up the Book of Vile Darkness? It burns, right? In 5e, she suffers disadvantage. In 4e, she grants combat advantage and has a penalty to attacks and saves. What happens when a neutral evil, mortal character holds it? Nothing, right? Well, that makes no sense. If the book is covered in acid, radiating electricity, or otherwise sending off harmful waves, it should hurt anyone who holds it that isn’t resistant to the damage. But it doesn’t. Why? Because what it’s radiating is evil, and in fantasy RPGs, law, chaos, good, and evil aren’t just philosophies. Philosophies can’t burn you.
Instead, law, chaos, good, and evil are forces of nature, just like electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. As Lord Gygax wrote, “it is very difficult for a character to voluntarily switch from one [alignment] to another. . .” (1e PHB, 34). This shouldn’t be hard for a D&D player to accept. We already accept the notion of the elements — air, earth, fire, and water — as fundamental aspects of nature, which is terrible science. Alignment can easily fit into that same approach. It’s an even stronger position to take considering that, in a fantasy setting, gods are fueled by prayers. These alignment forces provide a medium through which prayers and deeds fuel the power of the gods. Accordingly, you should expect the gods to engage in a divine arms race, infusing their mortal races with alignment energies, which results in an instinct to worship their respective creators. In other words, it makes perfect sense that Gruumsh would infuse orcs with both chaos and evil, and make them in his own image. Exceptions aside, who else would orcs worship?
Many wonderful stories that permeate not only RPGs, but our culture in general, are often a direct result of, and deeply intertwined with, this idealized approach to alignment. I understand that some of those stories have troubling themes (e.g., Sleeping Beauty was raped), but there’s no reason that such themes must exist as part of this approach. That’s a matter of story only. However, I will say that sometimes you need a story to be extreme in order for the audience to appreciate it.
A Few Problems Remain
If the point of keeping alignments is the stories, you have to make sure alignment doesn’t negatively impact the story. I see that happen when, for example, every player safely assumes that every monster they meet is evil.
Even if 99.99% of, e.g., hobgoblins are evil, the percentage of evil hobgoblins the characters actually meet should be much lower. Otherwise, every encounter with hobgoblins becomes as “kick the door down, kill everyone, and steal their shit” encounter. That’s too easy and boring.
So, even assuming you accept my position that alignments should remain, and you make sure a high percentage of exceptions exist among the humanoid NPCs the characters meet, there are two more problems that yet remain, and they have nothing to do with the social controversies surrounding it.
First, it sometimes seems that everyone has a different definition of each of the alignments. Over on Facebook, someone recently asked, “Just for fun, what alignment(s) suit Indiana Jones?” Here are the answers:
Unless “awesome” and “bitchen” are synonyms for evil, they all agree Indy isn’t neutral evil or chaotic evil. Well, that doesn’t exactly narrow it down. Without agreed-upon definitions for these terms, it’s hard to deal with them. Lord Gygax acknowledged this.
Naturally, there are all variations and shades of tendencies within each alignment. The descriptions are generalizations only.PHB, 33.
This suggests, as do the explanations given in that Facebook post, that part of the problem is that everyone has their own opinion as to where the line is drawn between two alignments. Several of the 125 answers drew the boundaries around some alignments more narrowly than others. That is, they’d cite a single instance of Indy going off alignment as proof that he wasn’t of that alignment at all. For example, one person said chaotic good because Indy would occasionally break a law. Even a lawful good character would break a rule once in a blue moon, but “occasionally” breaking a rule sounds like neutral good to me. Chaotic good is a disrespect for all but the most important laws (e.g., murder), and even those were flexible. This poster apparently wouldn’t tolerate a single rule break before designating Indy chaotic good.
I’m not sure this problem is solvable. Both 2e (IIRC) and 3e were reasonably thorough in their discussion of alignment, yet we still have this problem. However, we just need the problem solved on a per-table basis. That can be done at a session zero and as the campaign proceeds. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say everyone at a particular table fully agrees on how a character of a particular alignment should act under a particular set of circumstances. This leads us to the second problem: Some people don’t play alignment properly even where we all agree on what that alignment demands of the character. Some players choose an alignment for some mechanical benefit, but plays the character as a different alignment simply because it’s more fun, or perhaps to take advantage of a different mechanical benefit. I can think of far worse things players have done, but you lose something from the gaming experience for yourself and others if you play that way. It also impacts the other players around the table.
The Solution to These Problems
These problems can be (have been?) mitigated in two ways: 1) lessening the mechanical benefit of alignment forces; and 2) having a robust reputation system. If a lawful good paladin holds the Book of Vile Darkness, then it should burn him and provide a mechanical penalty, because that’s a penalty that applies to only a small number of related encounters. The moment alignment has a larger impact on mechanics than these exceptional cases, players have an incentive to claim an alignment that they won’t actually play. Still, any incentive at all could be a problem, so we’re not out of the woods yet.
The overall behavior of the character (or creature) is delineated by alignment, or, in the case of player characters, behavior determines actual alignment.1e DMG, 23
The other solution is a robust system of reputation. 4e’s D&D Encounters had such a system, but it wasn’t as strong as I’m suggesting. At any moment where the players are going to increase their reputation, a DM must disclose to a player that a given act will have appropriate consequences. They will be seen either as someone to rely on or someone not to be trusted depending on what choice they make. Some choices don’t carry any ethical weight to them but still add to a character’s reputation. Thus, characters accumulate good, bad, and neutral reputation points. The total number of points they accumulate determine their reputation (i.e., how well-known they are), but the difference between their good and bad points determines how certain institutions and organizations will view them. If you’re a thief with more bad points than good, the ruling noble won’t trust you, but the Thieves’ Guild will help you out. Alignment and reputation can work well together, and I see no pressing need to omit alignment from RPGs, but if you do omit alignment, you should certainly replace alignment with reputation.
Dwindling down to Nothing
As more elements are removed from the game, there won’t be anything else left to play. Alignment is yet another fine idea that’s about to be removed because people are connecting a fantasy world to the real world. The last time I dealt with this point of view, the Satanic Panic kicked my ass. The panicked saw the mythological elements of D&D as competition for their own religious views, which meant they were taking both mythology and games far too seriously. This campaign against alignment shares the same mentality, taking a game too seriously and treating it as you would the real world. The last time I checked, there are no goblins running around my neighborhood, so there’s no need to eliminate so many powerful stories from our arsenal. If this trend continues, future generations won’t be able to tell any stories at all. I’d rather not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There. I’ve spoken my peace. I’ll never publicly discuss this alignment bullshit again.
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