Friday, July 18, 2014

Black Hearts and Noble Souls

Alignment in RPG campaigns is a contentious issue that has been debated over and over throughout the decades.  Many people complain alignment is used as a straight-jacket to restrict player actions, isn’t flexible enough,  or is generally ignored in the play of the game. I myself advocate it’s use

Alignment at the very core serves as a device to establish sides or factions within a campaign, that’s how it worked in the first version of the game with Lawfuls on one side and Chaotics on the other with Neutrals either having no part in the conflict or selling out to either side.   Using Alignment as a faction indicator is a simplistic device but it works. 

Alignment as a guide to personal and spiritual behavior starts mucking things up a bit by implying limitations to behavior.  D&D added Good and Evil to the mix of alignments during the genesis of AD&D and folks were arguing about what each alignment has meant for years (“Lawful Evil”, “Chaotic Good” what? I’ll make my character Chaotic Neutral so I can do whatever I want). The second version Basic D&D took the more general alignments of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic and explained them as choices of morality and behavior that many saw as restrictive instead of suggestive. I feel a lot of people mistook guide to behavior as a restriction a very inflexible restriction. Part of the confusion for the AD&D alignments was likely because while they appeared in 3 rulebooks initially the three rulebooks treated them separately, the most comprehensive treatment was in the Dungeon Masters Guide in a section most players would have never bothered to read (I suspect many a DM also just skimmed it), many of the ambiguities and uses of alignment were actually cleared up there but the game and hobby at large didn’t seem to notice.

Evil is objective, well at least it is in the worlds of D&D when we can point at something and go “This is evil” and it’s not a matter of opinion, yes Virginia Asmodeus is Evil and it isn’t a matter of opinion. Many a fantasy world has pretty overt and obvious embodiments of evil running about the landscape or restricted (for now) in a Black Tower or some other dread locale.  Some make the pretense to say their fantasy campaign is different it’s full of shades of grey with no extreme polarities (and yet many still used demons and other vile creatures that are clearly evil). How solidly objective evil reigns in a campaign is clearly up to a DM but it’s there and takes a fair bit of work to exercise cleanly in a world full of good guys and bad guys. The grey of the ashes of a sacked city fuelled by the fat of burning infants tossed spear to spear until left bubbling in the pyre is very different from the grey of an overcast morning. There is evil in fantasy worlds, that’s part of the whole point of myth that RPG is dealing with, it’s part of each hero’s personal struggle to rise above the quagmire of evil and achieve greatness or to revel in vainglorious deeds as one wallows in their own deeds and the rot of evil and it’s all put on a tarnished platter as example.

Alignment being inconsequential to the majority of the game is claim brought up by some critics. This criticism ignores the objective realities in the game expressed in a handful of magical spells only accessible or only in effect against evil entities. Clerics as a class make the struggle to maintain ones self and be true to their spirit and goals are an embodiment of how alignment isn’t inconsequential (and why many don’t like clerics in play).  Some magical items will strike down those of the contrary alignment to which they were purposed or simply refuse to function at all, others will bend ones spirit as a punishment for a characters avarice.  Alignment has some mechanistic consequences and I myself think the role of alignment in the game would be boosted by increasing the frequency of such instances within a campaign.

Alignment as restriction is misplaced and often poorly played. The worst way a DM can handle alignment is by telling a player “You can’t do that you are Lawful Good”. There are mechanisms in the game such as reducing the experience points earned for a player not embodying the role of the character they have chosen to play (as per the original DMG) or simply having NPCs react as is appropriate to their alignment which need not motivate foolish or dangerous actions but may lead to the henchmen and allies of a Lawful Good murder abandoning them, brigning them to justice, or helping them to repent. Another mechanic is to simply redefine the characters alignment by a few steps away from their professed alignment towards the alignment actually embodied and let the player deal with those consequences. When a player acts contrary to their alignment a lot of good play can come in dealing with the consequences and the personal reaction. “Gee why does Sir Branard the White donate 90% of his plunder to the orphanage ?” maybe because he feels awful for slaying that mother with the baby in hand three years ago.  Alignment should direct but not restrict action n play and while at times there can be a stern and overt mechanical reaction to an “alignment violation” there should be a reaction among PCs and NPCs dictated by personality and circumstance of such characters that may indeed lead to much more memorable play.

Each DM should read the rules carefully and see alignment as a means to define and explain the campaign as opposed to a way to restrain and inhibit players. For years I favored the three alignment spread of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic because it embodied all I really needed in my campaigns which often took place in fairly grim medieval worlds. These were however medieval worlds so all Lawful people were not on the same team Lawful people would strive to live up to their ideals seeing order and method as important as improvement and goals, while the Chaotic sought change and passion over stasis and morbid tradition with Neutrals seeking the best means to prosper and survive without making the world worse; good and evil in such a scheme can remain very personal and it leaves lots of room to explore a character while still taking sides in the cosmic struggle. The subjective nature of evil in much fantasy fiction has an allure for me as well a does a desire to have more than two factions defined often by their resistance to each other.  Being aware of what purpose a DM wants alignment to serve within the game and making sure to maintain that in a campaign and not relent to criticism of those that feel slighted, bored or give in to the laziness by not wanting to track another of numerous statistics will serve a campaign well.

Alignment has a place in the game to define heroism, to identify vileness, to establish factions, to establish patterns in the working of magic , and to enable more dramatic play than swinging swords and counting coins.

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