Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Obligatory Alignment Post

There seems to be an unwritten rule that every blogger writing about D&D must at some point discuss alignment. What it means, why it works or doesn't, and the pros and cons of the ninefold system must be featured in at least one post before your cease to blog. I've made it almost a year and a half without mentioning the "a word," but now my time has come.

The following was prepared for the Eldritch Frontier wiki after the topic of alignment came up briefly at Sunday's meeting. It's not the end-all-be-all solution for what some folks call "the alignment problem," but it will hopefully give the players a better understanding of what the threefold alignment system of early D&D means in the context of the Eldritch Frontier campaign setting.

Law vs. Chaos

What exactly “Lawful,” “Chaotic,” “good,” or “evil” means in the context of a D&D campaign has been debated for more than thirty years with various degrees of success. I’m not going to attempt to provide a definitive answer that solves the debate once and for all. Instead, this page defines what alignment means in terms of the Eldritch Frontier campaign.

Before we begin, I’ll state outright that the concept of alignment in the Eldritch Frontier is extremely human-centric and does not take into account the philosophies and outlooks of most of the other (fictional) races, nor does it necessarily reflect the attitudes of me, the referee. The following alignment descriptions are also specific to this campaign setting and do not represent a one-size-fits-all definition that can be applied to any D&D campaign. Please keep this in mind before you choose to argue with my depictions.

Like in original Dungeons & Dragons and its descendent Holmes/Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer Dungeons & Dragons, Labyrinth Lord features the threefold alignment system of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic alignments. According to the descriptions given in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook, Lawful is equal to being a “good” person, Chaotics are “bad” villains, and Neutrals are wishy-washy individuals. Simplistic but useful when deciding what sort of moral compass your character has. Since I’m looking to run the Eldritch Frontier campaign in a style closer to its historical hobby roots, I’ll be keeping the threefold alignment system. The definitions of each alignment, however, are somewhat different from those given in Labyrinth Lord (and earlier versions of D&D). A better explanation of the threefold alignment system in the Eldritch Frontier campaign is presented below.

The underlying theme of the Eldritch Frontier campaign is “civilization vs. the wilderness.” At the beginning of play the player characters find themselves in a settlement on the edge of the frontier. To the east lies the civilized lands, while the west contains tracts of wilderness occasionally punctuated with areas of law and order. The alignment of each PC generally determines where they stand in the conflict between civilization and the wild lands beyond the River Ahkyl.

Those characters who align themselves with the forces of Law are working to bring order to the wilderness beyond the frontier, usually by way of introducing civilization. The farmer who clears the woods abutting his land so he has more arable fields for his crops is Lawful; the warden ranger who patrols the frontier and fights the humanoid tribes who dwell in the wilderness, thereby protecting the farmer and his family, is also aligned with Law. The local lord who collects the taxes from the farmer to pay for soldiers to patrol the streets and hunt down bandits works to maintain civilization and is thus a Lawful ruler.

However, not all who seek to impose civilization on the wilderness have the best interests of everyone in mind. The despot warlord who carved a barony out of the wild lands and now maintains his holdings through crushing taxation, slavery, and sacrifice to blasphemous godlings would also be considered a Lawful creature in the context of the “civilization vs. wilderness” theme. The assassin who ruthlessly slays the opponents of westward expansion into the wilderness would also be serving the cause of Law in the Eldritch Frontier. “Lawful” and “good” are usually synonymous but not always.

In short, if the character is generally looking to leave the world a somewhat better place than he found it (for himself, his allies, or descendents anyway), he is considered to be of Lawful alignment.

At the other end of the axis is Chaos, which seeks to prevent civilization from expanding into the wilderness—and not through passive resistance. The forces of Chaos put the “wild” in wilderness, actively seeking to thwart the goals of Law and civilization at every turn. The goblins, orcs, and other humanoids who ride out under darkness to burn down a farmer’s croft and put him and his family to the sword serve Chaos. The bandits and brigands who prey upon merchant caravans and stifle the growth of free trade work to advance Chaos. The undead whose very existence defies both the natural law and the concept of orderly cemeteries where the dead remain unmoving are forces of Chaos.

As with Lawful creatures, not everyone who opposes the spread of civilization does so for personal gain or because of antipathy towards men. Some are enemies to civilization because of the threat it poses to the wilderness. In the Eldritch Frontier campaign, the druid—long the poster child for Neutrality in D&D—is considered to serve Chaos since he seeks to defend the wild lands from the forces of law and order. He is an enemy of progress as far as Law is concerned, placing him firmly on the far side of the alignment axis. Some militant elves and hurgs are also aligned with Chaos solely due to the fact that they wish to keep civilization from taming their forest homes and will pick up arms to deter pioneers from entering their lands.

If your PC actively—that’s the key word here—seeks to oppose the spread of human civilization, he serves the forces of Chaos. He’s likely to be in the minority along the frontier so secrecy should be his watchword.

Lastly, there is Neutrality, the center of the alignment axis. In the Eldritch Frontier campaign, Neutrals simply do not care one way or the other whether civilization grows. Instead of seeking to advance or thwart order, they simply live amidst it, usually with no larger goal than daily survival or fattening their purses. Tomorrow will bring what it will and the best way to meet it is by looking out for oneself. It’s best not to get involved with bigger ideals.

If your character is only concerned with himself and how he can best make a buck, he’s in the middle of the alignment axis and serves neither side.


Chgowiz said...

This is probably one of the best alignment posts that explains how my alignment concepts work. Thank you, very well written. Are you sure we're not somehow separated at birth? ;)

Stuart said...

Great post - this makes me want to revise how we're handling alignments in our Weird West game (currenly it's White Hat / Grey Hat / Black Hat).

The theme of civilization vs wilderness is a really good one, I'm just not sure if I want to ditch the good/bad axis in favor of law/chaos. Having the AD&D style double-axis system seems like it might be too heavy. Worth considering though...

Alan said...

And what purpose does alignment serve in your campaign? What (if any) game effect does it have?

James Maliszewski said...

That's remarkably similar to the way I handle alignment in Dwimmermount, right down to the civilization angle for Law.

Anthropos Editor said...

I would echo Chgowiz and Alan exactly: A very strong idea that I have always thought works best in many game settings; and how do you like to make it work in a campaign?

What you're really doing is exchanging "motive" or "goal" for "alignment," which, like I said, I fully support. Why restrict characters to only having one of two motives, though?

James Bobb said...

While I like reading different takes on alignment systems, in practice they just don't seem very important. Not everyone is going to stay 'in alignment' throughout their character's career, there will be steps outside the alignment box, either planned or unplanned. Characters grow, especially after they survive the lower levels and develop a personality all their own. I don't understand the idea to try to constrain them into a box.

Stuart said...

What happens to spells like Detect/Protection From Good and Evil, Know Alignment, etc?

Do you remove them entirely, limit them to working for Supernatural creatures, add a good/evil axis, or somehow replace them so that they work with Law + Chaos.

Also - are you going to use Alignment Languages? I found they worked very well in our D&D game (Latin, Thieves Cant, Black Tongue) but they don't make much sense in our Western game.

Alan said...

A further comment, as I reread the post:

In short, if the character is generally looking to leave the world a somewhat better place than he found it (for himself, his allies, or descendents anyway), he is considered to be of Lawful alignment.

In your vision of alignment, I can see both agents of law and chaos thinking that their actions serve to better the world for those like them, so this litmus test seems ambiguous - "better" is in the eye of the beholder.

The noble savage resists incursion of civilizing forces to keep his way of life safe for his people and their descendants. The civilizing forces impose their will upon the land with the same desires.

As Anthropos Editor mentions, these are goals. I have always thought of alignment as more indicative a measure about how one attempts to achieve a goal rather than the goal itself.

Cameron Wood said...

Excellent post.

I have to admit, though, that I am most definitely not a fan of the whole alignment concept in role-playing, albeit for mostly shallow reasons. I mean, sure, one can get all Socratic on alignment's ass and end up ripping every take on it to laughable tatters - but what really bugs me about it is the way it always ended up getting played:

Lawful = Boy Scout Syndrome

Neutral = Moral Bipolar Disorder

Chaotic = Psychotic, Drunk, Carrying a Weapon, and Just Got Dumped by His Girlfriend and Now You Don't Know If He's Gonna Sit Down and Cry or Get Crazy With a Roomful of Hookers and a Mountain of Coke.

Fun for role-playing, of course, but the reality of player-behavior makes trying to build overarching cosmic morality into one's world pretty much a wasted effort.

The deeper problem I have is that the very presence of definable alignment, categories that even the gods must logically fall into, must (as it seems to me)neccessitate the existence of some kind of omniscient arbiter - call him God with a capital G - to say who's REALLY been being naughty and who's been being nice. If Law and Chaos are as mutable and plastic in the heavens as they are on the ground, that is, if they aren't any less arguable and abstract among greater powers as they are with mortals, what's the point of having alignments in the game as ruling touchstones for behavior?

I know, I know - it doesn't matter where the game is concerned. And it doesn't, but it's still fun to think about sometimes.

I've indulged and written too much. Thanks for your patience.

Booberry said...

This is exactly how we handle alignment. I always thought the threefold axis was a bit silly until I read Poul's Three Hearts and Three Lions and the whole "Civilization Vs. Wilderness" thing finally clicked.

It also handily sidesteps the arguments that inevitably stem from the "subjective granularity" of the ninefold axis.

LordVreeg said...

As with many rulesets and rules, I dumped alignment decades ago due to the lack of good it did my games. It was too subjective and not dynamic enough (I'm known for keeping Myers-Briggs acronyms for my NPCs).

How would some of our memorable anti-heroes fair here? How would Elric be viewed? The Black Comany? Is there a redemptive mechanism? Do Gods follow alignments? Do races have predilictions?

Cameron Wood said...

Ah - The Black Company - just about the perfect monkey wrench one could think of for this kind of discussion. Just finished the series for the first time a month ago; excellent books all.

Adaen of Bridgewater said...

Very nice post.But I echo Alan, does Alignment have any game effect?


Adaen of Bridgewater said...

Very nice post.But I echo Alan, does Alignment have any game effect?