It’s Current Year and Alignment is Still Weirdly Controversial

Tuesday , 3, January 2017 12 Comments

Over at Dyvers, Charles Akins reports that players are still struggling with concept of alignment in their tabletop fantasy role-playing games:

A friend of mine had invited three teenage players into his game. The three players decided to play characters with different alignments. The first decides to play Lawful Evil, the second elects to become Lawful Neutral, and the third chooses to become Lawful Good. The trio then send their characters into the dungeon where the Good and Evil player begin to push themselves to the extremes of their alignments which soon sends them into exasperated fits with each other. Their bickering gets so bad that the Neutral player finally shouts, “God, I’m so tired of playing with the Lawful Stupid!” Now, none of them are talking to each other but they’re telling anyone who will listen about why the other players’ alignment choice is the reason why the game fell apart. As one of the young ladies playing told me, “Playing my alignment correctly is what broke the game and it’s why I… hate alignments to begin with!”

Now, you’d think this would make for a great teachable moment about the nature of D&D, the history of the game, and what really works in actual play. The fact is, even in the more erudite corners of gamerdom this is a topic that inspires grown men to come to blows.

What’s gone wrong here? Well… it’s complicated.

Alignment is in the game because, to the original designers, works by Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock were considered to be at least as synonymous with fantasy as Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Jack Vance’s Cugel, and Tolkien’s Gandalf. This in and of itself makes alignment weird to nearly everyone under about the age of forty or so. Things are further complicated by the fact that the concept of alignment lost more than a little in its translation to role-playing rules. Further, the waters were hopelessly muddied with the introduction of the Myers Briggs style nine-point system with the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

But for anyone that struggles with just precisely how to portray the archetypical Lawful Good paladin of Dungeons & Dragons, it would be helpful to know that an entire fantasy novel was dedicated to the topic well before the game even existed. (For people that struggled with the premise of the iconic module B2 Keep on the Borderlands, that same book has answers for that as well nearly four decades before its publication.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most popular swords and sorcery characters of the New Wave demonstrates just how exactly irredeemable demon-worshipping miscreants of Chaos could be motivated to perform heroic acts and even ascend to the ranks of an eternal champion on par with mythic-level heroes like Roland.

What then is the root cause of the alignment trouble players have with the game…? Well, the mass market fantasy of the past four decades is significantly watered down in comparison to the works that inspired Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. Combined with the short fiction’s loss of status as a primary source of gaming inspiration, this constitutes a de facto attack on the imagination of an entire generation. Consequently, when they sit down to play a game that depends on the imagination of the players in order to function, they’re inevitably going to have a hard time.

  • H.P. says:

    Is anyone else still signing all of their CURRENT YEAR admonitions “2016”?

    You would think lawful good and lawful evil would make for a natural good cop/bad cop. Going beyond the memory-holing of canon, on a broader level modern TV/movies/books do a terrible job dealing with moral issues. They just don’t have the language or the analytical framework for it.

  • disambiguated says:

    ‘ . . . it would be helpful to know that an entire fantasy novel was dedicated to the topic well before the game even existed.’

    So, you won’t even give us a hint?

    The other one(s) on the evil side are Moorcock’s Elric series, of course.

  • I have always considered alignment to be a holdover from D&D’s wargaming roots. In the proto-RPGs like Chainmail and Swords&Spells, designating units as “Lawful” or “Chaotic” was useful in determining things like morale checks and berserking. In the shift from a board wargame where players controlled multiple units to an RPG where players controlled a single character, having an arbitrary statistic to represent a character’s range of actions became much less important.

  • James Sullivan says:

    As a DM, I find that tracking PC behavior, using Alignment to do so, is useful for the purposes of how the Campaign World reacts and interacts with them.

    – Fame and honor (or infamy and dishonor) will of course determine how villages, afraid of Murder Hobos, will treat them.

    – And the core of my DM style: “Consequences Generate the Campaign”. Alignment tracking is one of the easiest Ways for me to do keep track of consequences.

    I could care less what the PC Alignment is (except with Paladins, and only in regard to whether they keep their status and powers) or how the player plays it. However, the Campaign world and the Movers and Shakers in it care and will react accordingly.

    • PCBushi says:

      I’ve always felt that being lawful or chaotic are superfluous to determining how the game world reacts to players. Perhaps certain spells or effects react differently to good or evil characters, but even beyond that I feel like NPCs should judge PCs on what they do, not what alignment they are. It’s not like they walk around with stickers on their lapels telling everyone that they’re chaotic good; their actions reflect whether they are or not.

      • James Sullivan says:

        Well, of course.

        But that’s what I meant be famous/infamous and consequences. There’s no neon sign proclaiming “LAWFUL GOOD”. But their actions reveal these things. And those actions have consequences and generate their reputations. And NPCs react to those.

  • maniacprovost says:

    Only playing CRPGs… I know, Heresy… It seems to me that you would want to award players points for lawful, chaotic, good or evil actions, and use their cumulative balance to determine which god bestows them with bonuses or the effectiveness of healing spells vs destruction spells, what kind of creature they can summon or whatever. It would require a little more effort for pure fighter classes. But even speech checks could be affected. Lawful characters are better at intimidation, neutral are better at persuasion, chaotic are better at lying, etc. It just may be too much work to accomplish those things when people don’t like to have their characters restricted or fail role playing on a dice roll.

  • Mitch Goldstein says:

    I remember when I first played D&D at Jewish Summer Camp and our DM was like “Let’s drop this Jesus shit” when it came to alignments.

    It was good rule then, and a good rule now.

  • James says:

    What makes it hard to understand is why would anybody know or declare their own alignment? That just adds a BS modern layer of psychology that doesn’t fit with the pseudo-medieval fantasy setting. So if DMs have to use alignment, fine, but they could infer it from a player’s actions, not expect him/her to carry around like their blood type.

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