Saturday, July 30, 2016

Alignment: more fundamental even than a player's choice

I haven't posted anything in a while, so I thought I'd drop back in on the ol' blog with a quick update.

The new edition of Engines & Empires has become somewhat bogged down in the monster chapter, probably because I set myself up with too much to do.  I had wanted to keep things slick and simple, but in researching old-school monsters, I kept running into old favorites and thinking to myself, "well, how could I not include that?"  And my original intent—to only include proper fairy-tale and mythology monsters, and dispense with Gygaxian weirdness—got sort of sidetracked, by pure alphabetical chance.

You see, I wanted to divide the monster chapter into sub-categories: animals, humanoids, constructs, undead, etc.  And I decided to tackle them in alphabetical order.  The first heading?  It wound up being "abominations, eldritch horrors, and monstrosities".  This is the chapter that includes all the truly weird stuff: aliens, Yog-Sothothery, and yes, all those Gygaxian "fuck you, because dungeon" monsters.  So on the one hand, at least the Gygaxian weirdness is siloed off into its own little section (and I probably won't put most of these monsters on the random encounter tables, because I want to preserve that very special "basic D&D ain't AD&D" feel); but on the other hand, they're there in the book in case they're ever needed (I certainly used them quite a bit for the Shade Isle campaign, and I'd rather not have to lug around the Creature Catalog and Advanced Edition Companion all the time—the whole reason I'm doing this is to get back down to one book).

But as I was going through these monsters and their stat write-ups, something else occurred to me: early on, I decided that for this new edition of E&E, alignment wouldn't be a big deal.  I would just dodge the whole question of whether it was a moral philosophy, a description of character behavior, or a "side" you pick in the great cosmic battle, and just make it sort of there in the background, a fundamental description of a creature's nature.

In other words, by definition, the alignments mean…
• Law is that which pertains "to gods and men".  It is the alignment of the gods who run the cosmos, their direct servants (angels), humans who are not magic-users, and anything else that is the direct creation of human society, like robots and automata.
• Neutrality is anything which is natural, but unencumbered by affectations of human society or religion (ordinary plants and animals, in other words); or anything that bridges the gulf between the natural and the supernatural (human mages and all demihumans, by definition; and also elementals, for cosmology reasons).
• Chaos is everything else: if it's monstrous, supernatural, unnatural, or in any way out of the ordinary, it's Chaotic by definition, even something like a mindless ooze.  Demons are of chaos, but so are fae, because they're of magic, not of the natural world.

This fits in well with both steampunk's magic vs. science theme, as well as the inspiration I've drawn from Beyond the Wall (heavy as it is on the Chaotic-ness of fae).  Part of what inspired this is the fact that I recently read through both a lot of Elric novels and Three Hearts and Three Lions, and I like Anderson's take on Law and Chaos much better than Moorcock's.  One the one hand, reading Moorcock really turns on the lightbulb with respect to understanding where so much of AD&D comes from (time after time, you just keep going, "oh, that's where Gary was getting this batshit crazy idea from!"); but on the other, it's just so complex and tiresome… it's a very specific bit of world-building, and I want nothing to do with it.  Poul Anderson was just telling a romantic fairy-tale, more or less, and that's what I'll go with.

So the up-shot of this is that alignment is predetermined by your choice of race and class.  A human fighter, expert, or tech is just plain Lawful, period, end of story; and a human mage or a demi-human is Neutral, boom, done.  Frankly, I like any excuse to take alignment out of the hands of the players, because there are just entirely too many players out there who like to use "I'm Chaotic!" as an excuse to play a jerkwad.

No, Timmy, you're not Chaotic, your character is just a jerkwad who hasn't been caught yet.


  1. Sort of reminds me of how Lamentations does it. I'm not sure how up to snuff (hmm...interesting choice of words given the artwork..) you are with the system, but clerics are Lawful, Elves and Magic-Users are Chaotic, and everyone else in Neutral. I know I'm paraphrasing a bit, but the rules state something to the effect of "most people who are aligned Chaotic desperately wish they weren't." I like it when Chaotic really isn't just "renamed Evil" or "shiftless douchebag" in practice, but rather someone who is allied, willingly or not, with the forces that erode civilization as we know it.

  2. Yeah, I think that's part of it. A lot of what annoys me about Moorcock's take on Law and Chaos is that they really are just renamed good and evil, as opposed to Poul Anderson's original conception, where it's much more about civilization vs. the otherworldly.