Alignment Musings

Alignment is not something a character can be, alignment is a characteristic of a larger reality which a character can participate in. This is the way I am coming to see alignment. My largest influence has probably been LotFP alignment though my final conception ends up being slightly different.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What was alignment originally? Men & Magic, page 9:

Before the game begins it is not only necessary to select a role, but it is also necessary to determine what stance the character will take – Law, Neutrality, or Chaos.

That’s it. The only other relevant pieces of information are the categorization of monsters by alignment and the wargaming context of alignment as affiliation (which side are you on?). That quickly expanded into the five-fold (Holmes) spectrum and the nine-fold (AD&D) two dimensional alignment plane, blending the dimensions of law/chaos with good/evil. And once B/X was published, the clear endgame became expanding the domain of law into the wilderness (by building and managing a stronghold). Though some would argue that this was also implicit in the original 3 LBBs. I am not sure Gary ever really saw evil and chaos as all that distinct. Here he is writing in The Temple of Elemental Evil (T1-4, page 27):

The cult was based on the premise that the elemental forces of the universe are Chaotic and opposed to mankind, and are thus (from a humanocentric viewpoint) Evil.

That seems to me perfectly in line with the original conception of alignment presented in OD&D, but with more knobs and switches bolted on.

So how have some of the recent games, specifically LotFP, tweaked this original concept? Well, for one thing, they have marinated it thoroughly in Lovecraft and sanded off some of the Moorcockian Eternal Champion edges (i.e., forces dedicated to maintaining the balance between law and chaos). Here’s the LotFP text (Rules & Magic, page 21):

Alignment is a character’s orientation on a cosmic scale. It has nothing to do with a character’s allegiances, personality, morality, or actions.

In LotFP, magic-users and elves are inherently chaotic because chaos is the source of magic. Chaos is also about destruction, entropy, and unmaking. Clerics are inherently lawful, because law is about conforming to a perfect and eternal plan. The vast majority of mortals are of alignment neutral, which has nothing to do with balance (or really anything else).

Another interesting take on alignment is contained in the Carcosa supplement (also heavily influenced by Lovecraft). Carcosan alignment has to do with one thing and one thing only: stance toward the Old Ones. Those who serve or wish to use the Old Ones are chaotic, those who fight them are lawful, and any person who doesn’t care one way or the other is neutral. In some ways, this is similar to the old wargaming conception of alignment. This is different than the “cosmic faction” style of alignment though because the Old Ones don’t really represent a faction. Neither side, either chaos or law, is organized at all. (I talk more about Carcosa here.)

The LotFP and Carcosa alignment systems are what I would call heuristic-based. By this I mean that there is a simple and objective test to determine where a character falls on the alignment spectrum. The advantage of these systems is that they do away with moral ambiguity with regards to rules adjudication and character decisions. Any use of magic in a LotFP game, even it is purely defensive or used to assist another, is a chaotic act. This is very clever, because it is simultaneously atmospheric and in service of game play.

That brings us to an interesting point. So far I have been writing about what alignment is but not so much about why we should care about it. This is a game, and rules must serve the game in some way. If alignment does not interact with the rules of the game, then it is just one more descriptive element added to give color and depth (like the color of your character’s eyes). Alignment does interact with the rules traditionally in several different ways:

  1. Spells like detect evil and protection from evil
  2. Ethos classes: paladin, monk, druid, ranger
So, any approach to alignment must either handle or jettison those links. LotFP and Carcosa handle number 1 by, as specified above, an objective heuristic. Is it magic? Then it is evil/chaotic and should be detected (or whatever). Is it in service to the Old Ones? Same deal (though most of the traditional spells don’t exist on Carcosa). Number 2 they punt on, by basing themselves on the B/X dialect of D&D (and thus not including any of the ethos classes).
In AD&D, paladins must be lawful good, rangers must be good (disposition to law and chaos is irrelevant), druids must be true neutral, and monks must be lawful (disposition to good and evil is irrelevant). The alignment restrictions are meant both to emphasize the class flavor and to serve as a downside to balance some of additional powers provided. This is really where the biggest practical problems with alignment arose; the referee was required to police character action in order to make their code have any meaning. If the paladin deviated, they were supposed to lose their powers or be required to atone in some way. Since the power of a character was at stake, it is unsurprising that this often led to conflict about the nature and definition of various alignment positions. What is a truly good or evil act? Do the ends ever justify the means? Etc. Resolving some of the perennial questions of philosophy became necessary to adjudicate basic questions about the rules!
The ethos classes don’t necessarily need to be connected to alignment, however. Concern for balance could be thrown out, or the classes could be balanced in different ways. Or they could have a more concrete set of rules to follow (e.g., the ten commandments). I’m not sure any class design intended to restrict player agency will ever really be a good idea, but I’m willing to suspend my final judgement. Maybe someone can do it well. Personally, I think it would be interesting to potentially shoehorn the ethos classes into the three-fold alignment system with the paladin and monk being lawful. The druid and ranger could be chaotic. A while back, I also wrote something about making the paladin into something like a B/X prestige class.

Incidentally, there is one other conception of alignment that I think is intriguing. It is best expressed by the post Conan and Alignment over at Blood of Prokopius. Seriously, go read that post now if you haven’t. In the schema of Conan and Alignment, law and chaos are both about people: civilization and the good of the many (law) versus barbarism and individualism (chaos). This is a political rather than a metaphysical conception of alignment, as it is about who rules. This is in contrast to the traditional D&D conception of chaos, which is the wilderness. At the end of that post, FrDave brings the discussion back to sides (i.e., wargaming alignment), but I don’t think that is the right destination. After all, the point is that every political entity goes through these cycles of birth, maturity, decadence, and overthrow. (In a fantasy setting, political entities could obviously be more than just mundane states; think Mordor or even Heaven and Hell.) Someone who is on one side might find that side changing out from under their feet.

FrDave didn’t mention this, but a similar dynamic holds in a frontier setting as well, though it is directional rather than cyclical. Think of the American wild west and manifest destiny. Or the slow expansion of China westward into Central Asia during the Qing Dynasty. (Check out China Marches West by Peter C. Perdue for a fascinating treatment of this history.)

LotFP says: alignment is a character’s orientation on a cosmic scale. This is where my interpretation diverges. I would say: alignment is the character of cosmic reality. Forces can be chaotic, actions can be chaotic, but mortals can only harness those forces or take those actions. Characters can’t belong to an alignment so much as participate in the outcome of reality, which could result in areas of reality tilting one way or another. Action and outcome based, rather than essence and aspiration based. This conception retains many of the characteristics of heuristic-based alignment, however. For example, detect evil and protection from evil can continue to work in the same way. But characters never have to pick an alignment. They only have to decide whether or not that want to channel the dark entropy from beyond.

And finally, as mentioned above, dealing with the change of PC alignment was always awkward. Following this version of alignment has the nice side effect of circumventing that problem while still providing all the other benefits of alignment rules (being able to use protection from evil, compatibility with other products, adding to the danger and atmosphere of magic, support of the wilderness rollback endgame).

Note: I’ve been working on this post for a while, but was finally spurred to finish it by this post over at Unofficial Games, and I reused some of the language from my comment there.

9 February 2012 edit: a thoughtful response by FrDave can be found here:

4 thoughts on “Alignment Musings

  1. Ed Dove

    Interesting reading! (Both what you wrote and what you linked to.) Lots for me to think about and consider.

    When I’ve run LotFP:WFRP or Carcosa, I’ve used their alignment systems as is. But I’ve come up with my own take on the AD&D alignment system which is based on how each character would answer those “perennial questions of philosophy” you mentioned. It goes like this…


    Should individual rights be sacrificed for the benefit of a group?

    Yes = Lawful

    Mostly yes = Lawful (Neutral tendencies)

    Maybe a bit more often yes than no = Neutral (Lawful tendencies)

    Maybe, some, sometimes, it depends, I don’t know, or I don’t care = Neutral

    Maybe a bit more often no than yes = Neutral (Chaotic tendencies)

    Mostly no = Chaotic (Neutral tendencies)

    No = Chaotic

    Do ends justify means?

    Yes = Evil

    Mostly yes = Evil (Neutral tendencies)

    Maybe a bit more often yes than no = Neutral (Evil tendencies)

    Maybe, some, sometimes, it depends, I don’t know, or I don’t care = Neutral

    Maybe a bit more often no than yes = Neutral (Good tendencies)

    Mostly no = Good (Neutral tendencies)

    No = Good


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