Sunday, April 24, 2022

Alignment. I get it now.

For many years now, I've run my D&D games without including alignment as a game mechanic. I left it out of Engines & Empires almost completely, and I have often praised Chris Gonnerman's Basic Fantasy RPG for retro-cloning D&D Basic but dropping alignment.

My dislike of alignment stems from the way that all modern versions of D&D (particularly from AD&D 2nd Edition forward) have interpreted alignment, and the way most players use (or misuse or abuse) alignment. That is, they treat alignment as a guide to their character's personal morality, or ethos, or psychology, or even their personality. It is akin to my general dislike of fantasy campaigns that have too many demihuman PCs in them: how often have you seen a player running an elf PC whose personality amounts to, "I'm an elf"? How many times have you seen a player running a dwarf PC whose personality is defined by a bad Scottish accent and all the usual dwarf stereotypes? 

Likewise, how often have you seen a Lawful PC whose one-note personality amounts to self-righteous dickery, or a Chaotic PC whose player clearly thinks that being random and cuh-ray-zy! is a decent substitute for depth?

(This is not, I should stress, anything to do with performative play-acting at the game table. It has everything to do with role-playing in the proper sense of the term, i.e. players running their PCs in accordance with their role — their job — during an adventure.)

In other words, I hate the modern interpretation of alignment as having anything to do with character behavior, particularly when it comes to "Lawful" and "Chaotic" being respectively interpreted as "upright" and "unpredictable." And while the orthodox OSR claims to have a remedy for this — "Just tell players that alignments are factions! Once the players understand that alignment comes from Chainmail, they'll get it." — in my experience, this simply doesn't work. The vast majority of D&D players do not give two shits about Chainmail, and even if you make it clear as day to all of your players that Law and Chaos are two grand, cosmic "sides" in an eternal war, that never dissuades players from treating them as personality types that they can — indeed, ought — to play up in the hammiest fashion they can muster.

And so, I have quietly left alignment by the wayside, and I have left the otherwise ubiquitous "Alignment: ___" field off of all my character sheets, and I have continued gaming in quiet contentment.

But… I think that I have been wrong to do so. And it comes from yet another off-handed comment overheard on a YouTube video. Notably, this recent reading of Men & Magic by Justin Alexander:

(Discussion of alignment starts at 1:11:17.)

As a rule, I'm not fond of these sorts of read-along videos. They usually just frustrate me, because I've already read these texts before, and I don't usually agree with the reader's interpretations and other color commentary. But I decided to listen to this one, just in case I might learn something new, and in fact I did. Justin actually discusses how alignment got into the D&D game in the first place — how Dave Arneson's Blackmoor players actually wound up segregating themselves into "Team Good" and "Team Evil," and how Gary Gygax decided to make things a little more nuanced and literary (and closer to Poul Anderson and especially Michael Moorcock) by changing the opposed poles to Law and Chaos for his Greyhawk campaign (before eventually including both axes in AD&D).

This is another epiphany moment, akin to hearing the old grognards in Gary Gygax's gaming circles discuss how they always had a stable of five or six PCs going at a time, and finally figuring out how 1:1 game-time is meant to work. As is typically the case, when presented with a murky or confusing game mechanic, the route to understanding it comes from peeling away the layers of misinterpretation and misuse and abuse and corruption heaped upon it by forty years of trad-style campaigns (i.e. small, fixed groups of players play-acting their small, fixed groups of PCs through the DM's plotlines) and instead reading the text in the context of a truly old-school campaign — not the superficial OSR interpretation of the old-school, mind, but one that contextualizes everything we can possibly know and have so far discovered about how Gygax &al. actually played in the mid-70s.

(Whole swaths of the RPG hobby, perhaps most especially those segments of the OSR that want nothing to do with AD&D or Gygaxian play, are presently scoffing at the recently-emerged BrOSR wing of by-the-book AD&D players. Say what you will about their bombast and their risible elitism, but at least they're actually playing the game in a manner that I'd call more properly contextualized than the last fifteen-plus years of "rulings, not rules" type OSR gaming.)

Alignments are factions. But more importantly, alignments are factions of player characters (and maybe of players too). This is what makes it all make sense. Alignment-as-personality (or morality or ethos) doesn't work and never has — it's shallow and annoying, and it always has been. Alignment-as-faction is better, but if we're only talking about "grand, cosmic" factions, or factions of NPCs that player characters can opt to join or ignore, it's not really all that much better. Indeed, if the players aren't separating themselves out into factions based on their differing goals and ideals (which is entirely understandable if the campaign has too few players for such a thing to happen naturally), then there are really only two alignments in the game that can possibly matter — "the PCs" and "the DM." It becomes a game of all the players vs. the world. Adversarial, but perhaps also the platonic form of a West Marches campaign, where the players would indeed be wise to always pool all of their knowledge and resources, so that they can best meet whatever challenges exist in the DM's world.

Alignment throws a wrinkle into that picture. It creates teams. If you only use Law and Chaos, or Good and Evil, there are two major teams competing to get that dungeon treasure first. If you use both, there are four poles, four teams — and at any given moment, the team you're on is fundamentally opposed to one of the other times, but could be a temporary ally or enemy to either of the other two. And all the while, the unaligned — Neutrals — can stand on their own or move between the teams, unconcerned with the machinations of the Grand Game. What wonderful complexity this suggests! What tremendous opportunities for interesting gameplay this opens up!

Once again, the picture gets a little bit clearer. Another piece of the puzzle falls into place. It starts with the OSR — XP for GP, "mega"-dungeons, sandboxes, hex-crawls — and then it goes beyond — open tables, PC stables, blorb, the persistent milieu, 1:1 time… and alignment not as cosmic factions, but as something very grounded and tangible and relatable. Player teams. I see it now, and I like what I see. ∎


  1. I would think teams would develop naturally based on who was ready to play at a time. In a West Marches-style campaign in which this all developed what happens if the guy on the Chaos team shows up on the same day the Law team is gathered? Do they not play, or do they play the faction and get themselves killed?

    1. I'd imagine that for most players, that would be a good reason to have characters of several alignments (or at least a couple of Neutrals in addition to your personally preferred alignment) in your PC roster, in case of just such an eventually.

      IMO, anything that gets players rolling up multiple characters and keeps them from becoming too overly attached to one favorite PC is going to be a boon to this play-style.

    2. And given the possibility you raise — that a player who enjoys playing Chaotic PCs and is solidly on "Team Chaos" for the campaign might show up and join a Lawful party by rolling up a Lawful or Neutral PC — that leads to some interesting implications in and of itself.

      It would be necessary to enforce a rigid separation between player and character. There would have to be mechanisms in place to make sure that a character's alignment couldn't normally be faked (e.g. alignment languages, alignment detecting spells), coupled with stiff in-game penalties for characters of one professed alignment who suddenly switch sides (hm…), so that our Chaos-friendly player couldn't run a fake-Lawful character as a "spy" or a "plant" for Team Chaos (extraordinary circumstances like alignment-concealing magic items aside).

      Once again, the peculiarities of the 1e DMG come into sharper focus once you examine the situation from several angles!

  2. Very good points. They did play with multiple characters and that seems a practical way to do it.

  3. Hmm. Having come into the hobby in 1982 and playing a lot of AD&D right up until 2E came out, I would hardly call alignment-as-behavior a "modern" misinterpretation. Yes, it was a religious ethos, tied to specific deities and cosmic factions...but (except for the clerics) we picked our personalities FIRST and our deities SECOND.

    A lot of chaotic neutrals back in those days. A LOT.

    Anyway, I don't disagree with the idea of alignment as factions...that's the way I always interpreted it in 1E based on Gygax's own writings (especially his Gord novels). But these days, I'd just rather be more abstract AND more specific (both) than use the 9-point alignment system.

    Which is to say: I think "teams" or "factions" or "alignment" should be set based on one's campaign world. If you're campaign is set in historic Earth, you might have alignments like Christian, Muslim, Jew, and Pagan (for example). In Moorcock's Young Kingdoms you have Law, Chaos, and Unaligned Victim. In Krynn you might have alignments based on specific deities (Reorx is the god of dwarves, regardless of their alignment), within an over-arching theme of "good" and "evil."

    Folks using Gygax's Greyhawk as their campaign world will have a fine and dandy time with the 9-point alignment scheme, because its so worked into the fabric of his world's cultures. For those of us who don't...well, there are other ways to structure teams and factions.

    1. >I would hardly call alignment-as-behavior a "modern" misinterpretation

      It's the one that dominates the hobby today, and gets put on t-shirts and memes. That makes it modern enough IMO.

      >Folks using Gygax's Greyhawk as their campaign world will have a fine and dandy time with the 9-point alignment scheme, because its so worked into the fabric of his world's cultures. For those of us who don't...well, there are other ways to structure teams and factions.

      Oh, absolutely. I'm not saying here that Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil have to be the alignments in every campaign. In fact, in the last couple I've run, those absolutely wouldn't work as the major poles of factionalism, because I never bothered to bake them deeply into the setting. My focus in building settings is usually on nations and empires; my campaign maps tend to look like a Diplomacy board (or in one case, that plus Barsoom…). And this understanding of alignment simply doesn't comport with a setup like that. PCs certainly could start out or eventually become aligned with a nation-state (or some grand alliance of the same), but that's just not very interesting in a game that will spend the early levels being mostly about dungeon-delving and sell-swording. It would only really come into focus for very high-level domain play, and that tends to be a long way off.

      No, the game-world would have to be constructed from the ground up to be conducive to competing factions. They could still be asymmetrical to some degree, but it would require a rethinking of the usual picture (the game starts in a borderlands where would-be heroes have come to bring Law and beat back the howling hordes or Chaos; the one safe stronghold is Lawful and the dungeons are all Chaotic). You'd actually have to go into some detail concerning: the borderlands between what? Answering that would start to form a picture of what the campaign's alignment poles ought to be.

      (I'm still mulling through whether it's best for starting 1st level PCs to be unaligned by default, unaligned if not clerics, or whether every PC should definitely start with an alignment. That might also vary depending on how the setting has been built.)

    2. If you're using alignment in your game, a 1st level character's starting alignment could represent "the way in which they were brought up," especially in a campaign world like Greyhawk, where each nation has a given alignment.

      [national alignments aren't terribly dissimilar from countries in the real world having "official religions"]

      In such a case, you could allow PCs to freely switch alignment at low level OR become generally "unaligned" (losing their religion)...though THAT sort of attitude smacks mostly of Chaotic Neutral to me.

      "Yeah, I was raised in a Lawful Good household be we weren't especially devout, and these days I just find that Chaotic Good makes more sense to how I live my life..."
      ; )

  4. An alternative way I've used alignments is, not as a dedicated system, but one of many possible loyalties that can be chosen for PCs at character creation. So a character might have loyalties to: Boccob, neutrality and the Academy. Another character might not have any of the classic D&D alignments in their list of loyalties. It doesn't prevent players from using this loyalty to define their personality, but it at least gives a framework as to what its actual purpose is -- a tool for a player to figure out what their PC is willing to risk their life for.

  5. This "problem" has been around since the 80s (been playing/DMing since 79/80). So not a modern issue, though its become excerbated overtime.

    I like your approach, but I dont see any issues with running it as a morality system for PCs. Thats how Ive used it for decades. I use it as a guide when I am not sure a PCs actions make sense within the morality/faction they have chosen. Though I do tend emphasis Law vs Chaos more than all 9 points speciefically. YMMV.