Friday, July 31, 2009

"Hey, Babe, What's Your Alignment?"

More stuff from my "Live and Let Dice" archives. This piece, from July 16 2004, discusses one of the most distinctive features of D&D, the alignment system.

"Hey, Babe! What's Your Alignment?"

July, 16, 2004

By Kurt Wilcken

It had been several months since I had last played my halfling thief, Frisco Flagons, in Fredd's AD&D campaign, and he warned me that some interesting things had developed during my absence. The party's cleric, an excruciatingly cutesey halfling druid named Caerduin Bando and played by Fredd's then-girlfriend, was telling everyone that she and Frisco were engaged. So when Frisco came back into town, everyone kept congratulating him and he had no idea why until he met Caerduin's father passing out invitations in the local tavern.

Now when Frisco finally confronted Caerduin (at the honeymoon cottage her father had built for them), the logical thing to do would have been to come out and tell her, he didn't want to marry her; but instead of telling her how he really felt, he tried talking his way out of the situation. Big mistake.

While the wily halfling was talking himself deeper and deeper, the village priest who was supposed to perform the ceremony showed up. Before Frisco could bolt out the window, Caerduin said in her cutesey-sweet lilt: "I cast Word of Command... MARRY!"

Now this raised an interesting dilemma for Fredd. Could the "Word of Command" spell be used in such a fashion? Bryon and Cath, the other players that day, were more concerned with the ethical question. "You can't do that!" Cath said. "You're Lawful Good! That goes against your alignment!"

"No I'm not," Caerduin smiled sweetly and held up her character sheet. "See? Druids are Neutral!!!"

* * * * *

The Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is one of the most distinctive aspects of the game; an attempt to provide a moral framework for a game which, when you come right down to it, is mainly about killing things and stealing treasure. It does so by classifying a character's behavior according to nine distinctive alignments based on two scales: Good vs. Evil, and Law vs. Chaos.

Law and Chaos are familiar enough concepts to anyone who's read the Elric of Melnibone stories by Michael Moorcock, or any of the more mystic DC Comics characters during the 1980s. A Lawful character believes in Following The Rules, adhering to strict moral codes and social mores. A chaotic character rejects the rules of society. He may have his own moral code, but it is a personal one which he will be willing to bend if circumstances warret it.

Good and Evil seem easier to understand, but can be a bit tougher to define, except in an "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" way. Good characters generally treat others with respect, are kind to children and small animals and strive to make the world a better place. Evil characters like to kick puppies, burn down places of worship and turn your favorite books and TV shows into Will Smith movies.

In between the extremes of both scales lies Neutral. A character can be Neutral in regards to Good and Evil, or regarding Law and Chaos, or both (although this last alignment is discouraged). By some interpretations, Neutral characters are concerned with "balance" between the two extremes.

So, putting it all together, we have nine separate alignments: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, "True" Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil and Chaotic Evil.

One thing this alignment system stresses is that Lawful does not always equal Good and Chaotic does not always equal Evil. Superman or Captain America could be considered Lawful Good characters; they devote themselves to helping people and they respect and obey the law. Dirty Harry from the Clint Eastwood movies is a definite Chaotic Good; he likes to bend the rules in order to pursue justice; but he still would be considered a "Good" alignment.

Going on the other side, an arch villain with a strict code of honor, like Cardinal Richelieu from The Three Musketeers or the Master from Doctor Who would be considered Lawful Evil. Then again, Richleiu is more of a Lawful Neutral type, because does not serve either Good or Evil as much as he does the Interests of the State.

Which brings us to one problem with AD&D alignments: they are open to interpretation and often the players will argue with the Dungeon Master over whether or not a given action really violates the players alignment or not. Actually, some players will argue with the DM no matter what, but that's besides the point.

Ideally, a character's alignment serves as guidelines to keep the player "in-character". If a player acts outside of his alignment, he can face divine consequences. If character goes around killing random peasants for the experience points, the DM has a right to question the guy's "Good" alignment, and an obligation to give the guy some consequences for his actions. In a previous column, I mentioned the game my buddy Fredd ran in which a guy was playing a vampire. Fredd decided that the player was performing too many good deeds to keep his Lawful Evil alignment, and so he had the guy "rewarded" by the gods by losing his vampirism.

It still comes down to interpretation. Some players, for example, would argue that it's okay for a Lawful Good character to torture a prisoner as long as that prisoner was of an Evil alignment. The Players Handbook gives examples of how characters of different alignments would behave, but by neccessity it becomes a judgement call on the part of the players and the DM. "I'm the only person who really plays Lawful Neutral correctly," one rules-lawyer I know likes to boast.

The AD&D rules assumed that players would naturally take Good characters of whatever degree. This is not always the case. "Lawful Good is boring," my wife likes to sniff, and many players agree with her; "It's too limiting." I suspect this was why the character class of Paladin, which is only open to Lawful Good characters, was created; to make that alignment more attractive.

Other players insist that "Playing an Evil alignment gives you an edge!"; that the moral constraints of the Good alignment are a liability in the ruthless orc-eat-orc world of the Dungeon. Running that type of player in the same game with the players who insist "Good characters are morally bound to attack Evil characters on sight!" is an interesting experience, and not for the weak of stomach. Personally, when a player in one of my games shouts "I am EVIL!!!" and begins cackling maniacally, I start preparing consequences to go with their evil acts. That's because, well, I guess I'm evil too.

The whole matter of character alignment brings up serious questions of Geek Philosophy. I find it difficult to define Absolute Good and Evil without resorting to moral codes, and a code by it's very existence implies Law, which defeats the whole purpose of having two axes on the Alignment Chart.

And then there's the whole "Neutral" thing. The system gets kind of mushy in the center of the chart. A person might well devote his life to doing good. A villain might devote his life to the pursuit of evil, although he probably wouldn't think of it that way. But apart from Karla the Grey Witch from Record of Lodoss War, who the heck devotes his life to "Balance"?

Kevin Siembieda came up with an alternative alignment system for his Palladium System, the basis for the ROBOTECH RPG's and the popular RIFTS game of the '90s. The Palladium alignment system is divided into categories of Good and Evil, like AD&D's system, but instead of Neutral alignment, Palladium has "Selfish," for characters who are not exactly out to harm others; but who are just "looking out for Number One."

Each category is then subdivided further. Good into Principled and Scrupulous: Selfish into Unprincipled and Anarchist; and Evil into Miscreant, Aberrant and Diabolic. In the system, each category is given a list of qualities to help define it; how the character regards things like lying, violence, and situational ethics. The list allows the GM and the player to compare the different alignments and get a better feel for them.

For example, a Principled character will always keep his word, avoid lies and never kill or attack an unarmed foe. An Unprincipled character would keep his word of honor, but would lie and cheat if necessary, especially to those of anarchist and evil alignments. He would not kill an unarmed foe, but would take advantage of one. A Miscreant character will not necessarily keep his word to anyone, will lie and cheat indiscriminately, and would kill an unarmed foe as readily as he would a potential threat or competitor

The Palladium alignment system isn't as elegant or symmetrical as the AD&D system, but it's a bit more realistic and easier to apply.

Most game systems dispense with alignment altogether and find other ways to define a character's morals. In point-based games where you buy abilities, players assemble their eithics piece by piece. In the CHAMPIONS / HERO System, you buy your attributes, abilities and skills with Character Points. You get points back for each Limitation you take. These can by physical limitations, such as "Vulnerable to Red McGuffinite", but they are often psychological.and express the character's moral outlook. "Code Against Killing" is a common limitation in a comic book superhero game.

The GURPS system works in a similar fashion, but they have a huge glorious shopping list of neuroses, abberations and hang-ups to choose from as Disadvantages. They include not only negative disadvantages such as Phobias and Odious Personal Habits, but also positive ones like Honesty and Truthfulness. The reason why these are classified as "Disads" is because they limit a character's behavior. A hero with Pacifism will have to come up with some other way to take out Doctor Entropy besides blowing his head off..

Of course you'll always get players who say: "What if I just kill the villain and feel bad about it later?" The wise Game Master will always make sure that consequences follow the players actions, whether they are true to the alignment or not. My friend Cath, who with her husband ran several CHAMPIONS campaigns when I lived in Iowa, regarded "Lack of Code vs. Killing" just as big a limitation as "Code vs. Killing." A hero who indiscriminately kills his enemies is going to face problems. The authorities will not look kindly on him. Depending on whom he kills, the public might support him but they'll probably consider him a menace. And what if he kills an innocent, or even someone whose guilt is questionable?

In the classic realms of Sword & Sorcery things are a little easier. You're expected to kill orcs; that's what they're there for. Here the AD&D Alignment System provides a helpful guide to Who It's Okay To Slay. Still, it never hurts to throw in a surprise now and then. The death of that necromancer you just fought freed all his zombie minions to wreak havok on the countryside. The brigand whose band of outlaws you just exterminated was the Duke's brother-in-law and now you have a price on your head. Sometimes doing the right thing, even if you're acting in accordance with your allignment, has unintended consequences.

Perhaps the most useful application of the Alignment System is as a tool for running the NPCs. A monster or a non-player character's alignment gives the DM a capsule summary of how to play him. Is the goblin liable to help the players or try to kill them? Is this a friendly dragon or a hungry one?

In the end, Character Alignment is a tool. It's a handy label to classify a character. Whether it's good or bad depends on how well it serves the need of the game, and upon the Game Master who is using it. Personally I tend toward Lawful Silly, but that's just me.

* * * * *

But what of Frisco Flagons? How did he escape Caerduin's marital trap? Find the answer here. And please, feel free to leave a comment. I live for feedback!

Nil Desparandum

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