OSR Alignment

edited November 2013 in Play Advice
All of these OSR posts have given me an itch.

I want to hear more about how character alignment does or doesn't factor into your OSR games. Do any of you have experience or advice on how to handle it? Eero mentioned that using it for xp rewards can be disruptive to the game's coherence. Are there better ways to use it that are compatible and complementary to the fiction-first, tactical, challenge-based play you're all describing?

Are there good ways to use alignment as adventure prompts, for example? There was some talk about how "rescue the princess" (or whatever) is just a stand-in for the loot you'll get in the doing. Is this all just set dressing? Or can alignment shape the style of adventures more substantively while still retaining the dungeon delve feel?

Comments

  • edited November 2013
    Let me add to this the "historical/hermeneutical" question: What role do you think alignment plays in the games as written? What role did alignment play for games as developed by Arneson, Gygax, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Allston, etc.?
  • edited November 2013
    I do not find traditional alignment necessary, and it gets progressively more insane in AD&D (really, a quarter of the most batshit insane rules in that game have to do with Alignment, it seems to me).

    That being said, something like Alignment has been useful to me. For example, I've found it useful to keep explicit track of the causes that PCs advocate; as I've described, it's all about explicit goal-orientation, so having players make overt decisions about whether their characters are e.g. loyal to a given king can help in various ways. For example, we might have a conceit wherein only royalist characters will get an extra xp bonus from saving the young prince, while the others have to make do with the monetary reward (which they might be enjoying instead of the king's gratitude, of course; it's very much in genre for mercenaries to get their gold, while officers of the crown get a modest paycheck, royal gratitude and an even more impossible mission).

    Of course, depending on how one plays Alignment, it might be virtually indistinguishable from the sort of "Cause" I describe here. It seems to me that for most people Alignment is specifically a general philosophy that does not and should not have any tactical, political implications for day to day adventuring.

    Furthermore, I also find it intensely interesting to track the spiritual state of the characters for various types of skulduggery. For this I use something that might charitably be called "Alignment" (as we in fact do): the spiritual and ideological powers of the setting are laid out onto a sheet of paper not unlike Gygax's original alignment chart, and then individual characters are assigned to points on this map. Their actions for or against individual spiritual or ideological powers (these are things like gods, nationalism towards this or that political entity, communism, space aliens, etc.) then cause them to travel around this "ideological map", and their actions may also move the spiritual landscape of the map around. For example, a character might forfeit the reward for protecting their city state out of loyalty, giving a speech to the populace exhorting every citizen's equal duties incurred by their rights in the republic; this deed might move the character closer to their own city on the ideological map, while also moving the city state itself towards the idea of republicanism.

    (What's the practical application for the above, I'm sure you ask. Well, mid-level and high level adventures in D&D concern themselves more and more with abstract, ideological elements as part of how the individual PCs relationship to the setting changes. In this regard the most crucial use for Alignment - and the only valid one, really - is in tracking the state of souls for the sake of high fantasy politics. In this spirit I can use my ideological mapping to determine application of magics such as detect evil; to determine the type and attention of the Divine powers that the PCs incur; to provide social or morale or baddassitude bonuses to actions for or against ideologies; to determine very concrete tactical details about those adventures that are called "Planar" in traditional lexicon.)

    Those are the two utilities I see in Alignment: it can help us be explicit about adventure goals, which is useful for setting rewards, and it can help us in constructing the ideological/spiritual landscape for mid-to-high level adventures. As you can see, I find almost nothing in the traditional implementation of Alignment to be worth saving; I have nothing against Moorcock's scheme of Law and Chaos, but if I'm going to use it, I'm going to make that choice as a setting design choice, not as a weird universal systematic assumption.

    Also, as a point of procedure: characters in my house rules cannot declare overt Causes (in a mechanical sense) before level 2, and have no position in the Ideological map before level 5. This should starkly illustrate why I use these concepts, and how they don't necessarily have a lot to do with traditional Alignment aside from covering the same sort of ground.

    --

    As for the historical question, here's my understanding:

    In original D&D the idea was not very developed, it was basically short-hand for "our team" and "their team". I expect that Gygax had some specific intellectual interests in his campaign regarding Alignment, probably revolving around the spiritual themes of Law vs. Chaos. The most important practical factor was that magical or voluntary Alignment-changes served to clearly justify and define it when e.g. player characters were set against each other in scenarios.

    By the time AD&D comes up, Gygax has decided that Alignment is a tool of control to be wielded against players, so as to better facilitate the GM's preconceptions of what play should be like. He has also disappeared up his own ass by then regarding complex pseudo-psychological philosophizing about the two alignment axes and how they cross-cut the entire imaginary medieval society, providing convenient labeling for anything and everything. Thus Alignment in its full flower is not only an useless curiousity, but also a self-satisfied ideological parasite that produces obscure intellectual titillation while providing the GM with a range of tools that mostly should never, ever be used. I read the AD&D DMG recently, and I was quite amazed at the thickness of the hypocrisy; the above explanation (GM power-trips and too much idle philosophizing), while not very nice, is my best shot at attempting an understanding.
  • Sides for big battles :)
  • edited November 2013
    I hate basically everything else about the game Talisman, but it does right by alignment as far as I'm concerned. It has cards with effects like "evil characters save vs magic or take d4 damage," "the ring gives +2 str to neutral characters, but -1 str to good or evil, and they can't remove it from their finger," and "any character who puts on the helmet gains +1 to hit, but a good or neutral character who puts it on becomes immediately evil."

    No limits on your behavior (who cares!) but instead just a tag to which you can tie fun variable effects.
  • We've house-ruled alignments. The Chaotic aligment rule is: "You speak the Chaotic language of monsters and brigands. When you act on your lust, greed or anger and risk prompt retaliation, you gain 1d6 HP immediately." (We don't have total HP, only actual HP, we reroll them every morning)
  • edited November 2013
    Story Games, it's like I hardly know you! What, no spirited defence of a legacy? No close textual readings?

    Of course alignment makes no sense unless, maybe, you squint and tilt your head the right way. What are some ways y'all have tried tilting your head? Tags, and alignment languages, are a good start! They're definitely a big part of how alignment works mechanically! What else?

    So, Gygax got so hung up on alignment that he insisted on ruthless measures to enforce it. Okay, but that's not why the game has alignment. It already had alignment before he got sucked into those dysfunctional practices, right? He got sucked into those dysfunctional practices because it was important for him to enforce alignment, right? So alignment brings something to the game, or says something about the characters, that's important—desperately important. But what?
  • I hate basically everything else about the game Talisman, but it does right by alignment as far as I'm concerned. It has cards with effects like "evil characters save vs magic or take d4 damage," "the ring gives +2 str to neutral characters, but -1 str to good or evil, and they can't remove it from their finger," and "any character who puts on the helmet gains +1 to hit, but a good or neutral character who puts it on becomes immediately evil."

    No limits on your behavior (who cares!) but instead just a tag to which you can tie fun variable effects.
    I think OD&D could to some extent play that way, though the random effects in the official rules are mostly limited to fighters (in that each sword has an alignment, and if you use the wrong sword, it zaps you).

    I've also played with the idea that chaos is the alignment of the dungeon, and PCs are lawful or neutral, with law being more about cities and civilization, and neutral more about being one with nature. Both opposed to chaos, but could have conflicts between themselves.

    Frank

  • Creases is of course right in that originally Alignment probably was not simply about terrorizing players, even if slightly later texts (e.g. that AD&D DMG) positively drip with glee at the thought of getting to e.g. dock experience points for playing your Alignment wrong.

    I don't know, what might have been the original purpose, aside from labeling teams? D&D has these strange soft spots where I feel like I live in such a different world that I really don't understand what they were thinking at the time. This is weird, for other areas of culture have not so completely changed as to make it impossible for me to understand the thinking - the literature D&D draws its inspiration from, for instance, is still clearly legible and compelling. I would give much to be able to review the actual play culture of the '70s at first hand.

    I mean, who would choose this particular implementation in this day and age, working from first principles? I've myself approached D&D with an ethos where every possible thing has to justify itself here and now, to me, to be retained and utilized; this is inevitable, considering how I don't have any childhood nostalgia for D&D. One might say that it's a surprise that so very much of the game remains compelling despite this perspective, but if we grant that and put it aside, that still leaves the weird stuff like Alignments - how come, given that much of the game is excellent from my modern perspective, this one bit refuses to make any sense?
  • Well, the team t-shirts theory is kind of interesting from a perspective of looking at it from a wargame perspective, especially a campaign war game perspective.

    What I mean is, in a campaign wargame, there's usually Team A and team B, and that's the basis of the thing. If there are Neutral Options for factions, there's generally not a lot of them, they tend not to be that powerful individually but have some aspect that cannot be ignored easily as Teams A&B try to hammer one another, and usually Teams A&B are busy trying to recruit them and/or make them irrelevant. Also, the individual Neutral factions often don't have much in the way of common cause, so they don't tend to group up with one another to form Team C collectively.

    I suspect some of it was simply an evolution from that kind of thinking, but now you were applying this wargaming mentality to:
    a) fantasy critters, with them emphasis on Good/Law/people vs. Chaos/Evil/monsters
    b) individual characters with players always being allowed to choose which group they wanted to join
    c) that Big Amorphous Pool of Players situation these club gamers were playing in

    So, yeah, in a way it does start to make some sense to tie it to general attitudes and behaviors, since you can't easily tie it to geographical/tribal groupings like in some other sort of war game.

    It just kinda expands from there.

    Of course the problem really does seem to come up mostly with the Paladin, once that comes into existence.
  • Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and Moorcock's Elric stuff is probably the source for alignment in D&D.
  • I haven't read 3H&3L, but I saw someone else post something about alignment in that book recently at rpgnet.

    Can you summarize it?
  • It's been awhile since I've read it, but basically, Law and Chaos are not points of view, but sides in a real conflict.

    Sorta kinda like WWII, the Axis and the Allies were sides in the conflict. If you're English and "go against your alignment" by helping out the Germans, yeah, there'd be consequences.
  • I recently read, in a ca 1979 Dragon/Polyhedron, an "expert" (TSR employee? RPGA DM? I'm not sure) assert that in D&D, Law<->Chaos is about behavior, and Good<->Evil is about motivation. I'm not sure that actually makes sense, but I've been rolling it around in the back of my mind ever since.
  • That double alignment axis thing is mostly so you can have well-dressed, hierarchy obsessed baddies goose stepping around in polished boots and law-breaking good guys stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

    Everything else I'm convinced is after the fact justification.
  • edited November 2013
    I'm pretty sure Jim is correct about Three Hearts and Three Lions. Part of alignment was simply to determine which army list the heroes, superheroes and wizards belonged to in Chainmail/OD&D and it stuck around.
  • I would add, pinging off the last few posts, that Alignment started on way - a simple way - and then got more and more complicated as people tried to
    A) make what had come before make sense
    And
    B) make what had come before "realistic"

    I'd say the same thing happened to XP

    And realistic and making sense might not be what a clear, abstract, effective system need to be.
  • Also there's the whole "eliminating moral ambiguity as a means to make this game about something other than murdering people and taking their stuff." If the wizard in the tower is provably, immutably Evil or Chaotic then you never have to have the discussion about why your band of "heroes" is sneaking into his house and taking his stuff.

    Alignment was the separation between heroic adventure story and "band of home invading murder hobos."

    Are their better ways to do that? For sure. But they all seem to focus on areas of the game that (while they are fascinating to me) the OSR movement, and classic D&D didn't want to get into.
  • I really like the idea that alignment is a commitment you make, consciously, and not just a tendency or a personality trait.

    I haven't read Poul Anderson! I have read Michael Moorcock, and in Moorcock, the thing about Law and Chaos is they can provide you with big help, but only when it serves their greater agenda. Either they get something out of it directly, or there are strings attached. Also, Law is not unambiguously good, and Chaos is not unambiguously evil—it's just weirder than that.

    Is it similar in Anderson?
  • Mostly I'm with Vincent on this issue. It's gamey as fuck, but then so is most of D&D '74.

    Buuut I fooled around a little with an OSR game based on the Kirby franchise that goes full-bore on the "crapsaccharine" thing. In it, I used a two-axis alignment system designed to be able to describe the motivation and ambition of the canonical Kirby characters. The two axes are one of altruism and one of ambition. I identified six nodes on each axis:

    Altruism axis:
    Gluttony - you want all the stuff, even if you don't need it.
    Selfishness - you want all the stuff, unless maybe if you've already got enough of it, then maybe someone else can have it.
    Survival - you want enough stuff to get by; when you're done, then others can have some.
    Asceticism - you don't really care about stuff.
    Parity - you want everyone to get the same amount of stuff.
    Altruism - you want others to have enough stuff to get by, even if that means you don't get stuff.

    Ambition axis:
    Tyrant - you want to rule it all with a fluffy iron fist.
    Lord - you want to rule a large but manageable part of it all.
    Free Spirit - you don't care about ruling or serving; you just want to do your thing.
    Anarchist - you don't want anyone to rule or serve.
    Dragon - you want to be the right-hand man of a worthy ruler.
    Vassal - you want to serve under a worthy ruler.

    And I noticed that the characters moved around on this. For instance, Kirby is always a Free Spirit, but he wobbles between Parity and Survival. King Dedede is a Tyrant through and through, and nearly always about Gluttony, but sometimes shades down to Selfishness. MetaKnight goes all over the ambition scale from game to game: from Dragon to Lord to Tyrant, although centering on Lord most of the time.

    So I thought I should allow the players to adjust their alignments when they felt like it. And then I realized that what I had was a framework for describing PC goals and motivations, which (as I play it) define the win conditions of D&Dalikes.

    Now, this has fuck-all to do anything in any D&D text ever, probably. But it is fun and also useful.
  • Gygax was playing with hs own children, and they were pretty small at the time. I suggest that D&D is as unambiguous as a fairytale, that Gygax had no intention of creating something that would stand up to any kind of sceptical scrutiny, and that the lack of shades-of-gray is just as unsurprising as if the thing had been made by Walt Disney.
  • edited November 2013
    Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and Moorcock's Elric stuff is probably the source for alignment in D&D.
    That's always what I assumed. And in original / red box D&D, if I recall correctly, there was no Good-Evil axis to alignment; all characters were Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic. Very "Elric".


  • edited November 2013
    Gygax was playing with hs own children, and they were pretty small at the time. I suggest that D&D is as unambiguous as a fairytale, that Gygax had no intention of creating something that would stand up to any kind of sceptical scrutiny, and that the lack of shades-of-gray is just as unsurprising as if the thing had been made by Walt Disney.
    That makes sense. On the other hand, reading the game material itself, I have to say that before the Basic line got going it all really seems like it's intended for adult wargamers - intelligent, curious people, many of whom have a definite underground fantasy streak in their reading habits.

    I mean, things like encountering highwaymen and slaughtering them all to a man, I wouldn't expect that from Disney, yet it is the completely expected response in D&D. Likewise, things like nubile damsels in distress, amassing gold to lord it over the peasants, delving into magics man was not meant to know, they all seem more like part of the college-age genre culture than something you'd engage in with children. Of course it's not an either-or proposition; properly vetted D&D can be relatively child-friendly, although I wouldn't play it with children under 12 myself.

    The basic notion of good and evil alignments does fit well in children's culture, that has to be admitted. TSR definitely did its best to increase the unambiguous Saturday morning cartoon feel over time. One would still have to wonder why they had to be called "Lawful" and "Chaotic" instead of "Good" and "Evil" at first - would've saved D&D a lot of confusion over the years, first with the single-axis system and then with the two-axis system where the Law/Chaos axis was really the poor country cousin nobody cared about.
  • edited November 2013
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