Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Subtle Take on Alignment

I'm once again between campaigns for the moment.  Or rather, between reffing campaigns -- in the interim, I'm thoroughly enjoying the chance to play in an Engines & Empires game, with my brother refereeing for our group.  Oddly, this is the first time I've actually got to sit on the player's side of the screen for a game of E&E.  It's tremendous fun, and I'm glad that my instincts as a game designer have more or less been borne out in practice.

Anyway... between running campaigns at the moment.  I have ideas for the game I want to run next (a small-scale sandbox: an island with a mega-dungeon at the center, and a good-ol'-fashioned depose-the-evil-tyrant plot to drive things along), but as I was coming up with the details for this new game, two things occurred to me along the way.

First, the last two campaigns that I ran reached high levels pretty quickly, and became unwieldy just that quickly, confirming once and for all that low-level games are definitely my bag, and high-level games definitely are not. And yet, I'm reluctant to ever do an E6 campaign again, because E6 applied to the B/X rules gets boring after reaching that level cap.  I'm sure it would work fine in d20, where characters can keep earning feats after 6th level, but I don't want to run d20.

So... I decided to come up with an alternative, more appropriate to the basic game, which I've dubbed "Jack's Hack" (it requires Labyrinth Lord and LL's Advanced Edition Companion to run properly; it stands independent of Engines & Empires).  The gist of my little hack: characters can advance up to 12th level (with experience required doubling all the way to 12th); but spells still only go up to 3rd level, with 2nd level spells becoming available around 5th level and 3rd level spells around 9th level.  Item creation among player characters is limited to potions and scrolls until a caster reaches 12th level.  This keeps things suitably reined in.

The other... shall we say, aspect of the game that struck me regards alignment, and it comes from the fact that I've lately contemplated mixing a little AD&D in with my D&D.  See, as I was initially planning this next campaign I mean to run, I had considered briefly running some by-the-book AD&D (or LL+AEC, which is close enough), and that meant going back to the nine-alignment system that I haven't bothered with since I gave up playing 3rd edition, circa 2006-7.  As I was reading through these alignments again, these ideas combined with other interpretations of alignment floating around the OSR blogosphere, especially the idea that alignment shouldn't be so much about character behavior as it should be about which cosmic "faction" a character belongs to in the setting -- and it led to this new interpretation of the alignments.

Good and Evil, as alignments, are pretty easy to understand.  Good characters always try to do the right thing, even when it's difficult, even when it puts them at risk.  Evil characters have no qualms about doing bad, no matter who they have to step on to get what they want.  Neutral characters (which describes the vast majority of everybody) have a moral compass, have lines they won't cross, but will generally only risk life and limb for family, friends, country, faith, and other personally important ideals.  That's the moral axis of D&D's alignment system, and there's nothing radical to reinterpret here.

But Law and Chaos have always been a point of contention with gamers.  D&D players seem chronically predisposed to interpret Lawful as "bug-up-the-arse traditionalist" and Chaotic as "wild, unpredictable idiot".  This comes part and parcel from the notion that alignment must somehow describe how a character behaves.  "It says 'Chaotic' on my character sheet -- when you really think about it, I'm kind of required to throw the pie at His Grace, the Duke, aren't I?"

I much prefer the idea that alignments are cosmic factions, and a character having an alignment means nothing about how the character behaves -- instead, it only describes what "side" the character is on in the grand scheme of things.  In Star Wars, the alignments could be called Light Side, Neutral, and Dark Side.  It just so happens that most Rebels wound up furthering the aims of the Light Side, and that the Empire was a force for the Dark Side.  Most smugglers and outlaws might have been nominally Neutral, but whether they knew it or not, the Hutts and bounty hunters were usually furthering the cause of the Dark Side in the galaxy.  This is how I want alignment to work in D&D: it describes what "side" your character is on in the big, epic, universal conflict -- whether your character knows it or not.

So where do Law and Chaos fall into this?  Well, as I was thinking about the nine-alignment system from AD&D, it occurred to me that in the cosmic sense, if Law and Chaos must represent a conflict that means something to a typical fantasy setting but stands at a 90-degree angle to Good and Evil, the closest equivalent is the struggle between civilization and barbarism (hopefully eschewing both overly romanticized and overly demonized caricatures of both concepts).  The "Lawful" alignment represents humanity (and its close demihuman allies), human civilizations and societies, and major institutions (especially government and religion).  The "Chaotic" alignment represents monstrosity (especially goblinoids), savagery, the brutal Hobbesian "state of nature".  The "Neutral" alignment on this axis represents parties that don't really have a dog in the civilization vs. barbarism fight -- Druids, pixies, all those woodland fey creatures that just want to be left alone.

A Lawfully-aligned character is a character whose deeds just happen, in their outcome, to further the cause of law, order, civilization, humanity, the gods... whether the character knows it or not, whether the character is actively trying to be Lawful or not.  The character's deeds lead to the character being perceived as a paragon, a hero, a saint, whether the character is actually "good" or not.  On the flip side, a Chaotically-aligned character winds up, whether intentionally or inadvertently, furthering the cause of the world's monsters, barbarian hordes, demonic cults, and other forces of Shadow and societal breakdown.  If the character is Chaotic but still basically good, the alignment basically describes a semi-inept hero whose plans always result in the worst of all possible unintended consequences.  (This, to me, sounds much more fun to play with than your average "Chaotic Stupid" maverick.)

This reinterpretation of Law and Chaos can be combined with Good and Evil (as per AD&D) or left on their own (as per OD&D).  If rendered on the advanced, nine-alignment axis, you get something like this:

-- Lawful Good: A character who sets out to be a hero, and whose heroic qualities are largely recognized by others in that character's society.
-- Neutral Good: A character whose only real aim is to do the right thing, according to the character's conscience -- even if others don't always understand.
-- Chaotic Good: A character who, with all the best of intentions, nevertheless winds up frequently causing disruption and discord.  Though moral, others often regard the character as a menace.
-- Lawful Neutral: A character whose chief concern is protecting his society, propitiating his society's gods, generally furthering the aims of his people.
-- True Neutral: A character whose goals are utterly self-centered, having nothing to do with morality or society.
-- Chaotic Neutral: A character actively invested in the downfall of civilized society, though unwilling to cross a Moral Event Horizon to accomplish that aim.
-- Lawful Evil: A character who will stop at nothing -- literally nothing -- to achieve an orderly and peaceful society.
-- Neutral Evil: A character whose motives are both selfish and unconstrained by scruples, a classic villain.
-- Chaotic Evil: A character actively invested in the downfall of society, and willing to perpetrate atrocities in furtherance of that aim.

But again, I stress that while these alignment descriptions are written from the perspective of "a character" with motives and aims, the alignments actually refer to the post hoc outcomes of the characters' actions on a setting-wide scale. Indeed, of necessity most characters would have begin the game Neutral, and only after a pattern emerges from the characters' deeds and their outcomes could the DM ever judge that a character has drifted in the direction of Good, Chaos, or whatever.  Alignment becomes, in a sense, not a description of what the character believes, or even how the character acts on a case-by-case basis, but what kind of impact the character has had on the setting at large.  That's an alignment system worth using, and a quality worth keeping track of.

In an RPG, player characters' moralities and ethoi are rarely more consistent than "do whatever it takes to win at the moment".  It's just the nature of the beast.  But characters might just develop a consistent pattern of ways that they change the game-world, whether for the better or the worse or just for their own ends.  It's a thought, one I'll hopefully be able to put to the test very soon.

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