I love Alignments

edited February 2009 in Story Games
This thread was inspired by Graham's I like Charisma.

Well, the thing is I have always loved Alignments. I believe they are one of the best roleplaying tools there is in the game, and one of the most underused, abused and misunderstood.

Most people think of it as a lousy restriction to avoid the players from doing whatever they want. Some people like it because it gives them the sense there would be nothing but anarchy and chaos from players and characters fighting and it helps them decide what goes and what not.

I like them, but in a very different light. They do not tell me what I could or should not do. They tell me a lot about how I perceive and interact with the world, in a philosophical and ethical way.

And I have found that most people don't really think about the implications they have. Every LG Paladin must be a lame boy scout incapable of acting in any reasonable way, always bossing everyone around and acting all righteous. And every CE baddie must be this chaotic entity without purpouse or reason, only interested in fighting and doing bad things. And every other alignment is just an in-between.

The one that infuriates me the most is the people that choose CG just because they feel that way they can claim to be "good", while beeing allowed to do bad things. "I'm chaotic. That's the way I am!" Godammin!!!

I for once have always loved the way the two axis worked, and how the different blends allowed you to develope a complete, complex and "human" personality for your characters (and even for your monsters). (I have to confess I hated it when they took them out of 4 Ed.)

Now, how have I made this work for me so far? It is actually quite simple.

The Law-Chaos axis is not related to how good or bad I am. Quite obvious, isn't it? Then what does it tell me? It speaks about my adherence to my personal code of conduct. That code can be based on something external (laws, religious principles, chain of command, my elders...), internal (my own discipline, how methodic and logical I am...) or situational (I go with what everyone else thinks or does).

When I am closer to the Law pole, I believe I must act as close to that code as possible. Thus I dislike going against the law, against my honor, against my boss... As long as I follow that, I may even not care about other things not related to my code (thus a dwarf might be as stubborn as it comes when dealing with what the elders told him, while regarding "those foolish human laws" as unimportant and mere guidelines). When I'm closed to the Chaos pole, I dislike limits, methods, orders. I do not follow that or any other code. I'd rather do things the way I like, the moment I like to, in any way I believe it fits at the moment. Therefore I might follow orders one moment, while disobeying them the next one. It is not that I just do random stuff without any sort of goal. It is that I only follow my whims and desires, thus while it might appear random to others, I always have a reason for doing what I do (even when some times that reason can be a mistery, even to myself).

The middle ground (the Neutral part of the Axis) means I understand the importance and use of the code, but I only adhere to it when I consider it is the best for my goals. As long as I consider them fair, I'll follow your laws. As long as I see them as wise and pragmatic, I'll obey the elders. As long as I don't have to give up to much, I'll be disciplined and do what I must.

The Good-Bad axis is not related to the western extremist "I'm good, so I'll be all nice and helpful. I'm bad, so I'll randomly and purpouselessly conquer the world!" It relates to what I'll be capable of doing to and for other people. If I'm willing to put other people before me, I'm good. If I'm willing to put myself before other people, I'm bad.

So the closer I am to the Good pole, the more things I'm willing to do for others. The greater the sacrifices I believe I could do for other people's sakes. I can get to hurt others, as long as I percieve that is for the greater good. The closer I am to the Evil pole, the more stuff I'm willing to let people suffer to get something good for me. It is not that I hurt people "just because". That is not evil, that is lame. The key is "what benefit would I get from doing this?" It might be power, pleasure, money, selfrighteousness, vengance, fun...

The middle gound (the "other" Neutral) means I'd rather put myself first, that I would do what would benefit me the most, but that doesn't mean I don't care about the welfare of others. If I feel justified enough, I might hurt others, but only if I believe there is no other choice. And most deffinitely I'd rather hurt strangers than those close to me.

In my eyes, the thing is not that some alignments allow or disallow you do do stuff. The thing is the way you justify why or how you feel about doing them.

The classical internet alignment controversy (which keeps resurfacing over and over again in any D&D forum). Is poison use evil? Does a Paladin gets to be punished just for using poison?

My take is "it depends". If in the paladin eyes he is following his code, and if he feels it will be for the greater good, he might. He might be following his orders, codes and laws (how different is killing a monster by the sword to doing it by poison?). And he might be willing to sacrifice his own "purity" by dirtying his own hands "for the other people's sakes". (If he kills the monster himself, then no one else will need to kill it afterwards.) Thus he used poison, without ever falling outside of what his alignment "would allow him to do".

So, Story-Games people, what are your takes on the Alignment thing? How have you used it? In what way has it become a roleplaying tool to you, rather than a simple mechanical limitation?

Comments

  • See, there's this common fantasy trope of good vs. evil, and it generally means some absolute good and absolute evil and the shades of grey be damned. D&D tends to take that black and white view of morality, and it works. Good people kill evil monsters (and humanoids) because they're irrevocably evil. Everything is simple and clean that way. Do you kill the kobold babies? Sure, they're irrevocably evil. Do you wipe out every single orc in the country, a la ethnic cleansing? Sure, they're irrevocably evil.

    It's a terribly unrealistic view of the world, but we all know it's a fantasy game. Maybe we play fantasy games to escape from the difficult moral and ethical choices of reality.

    When you start to look at in-game behavior a little more closely, it's pretty repugnant. It feels like a weak justification for prejudice and racism, not to mention all manner of war crimes. Do you kill the kobold babies? No, they haven't done anything. Do you kill the kobold warrior? He's just protecting his home. Why are you even in this cave fighting kobolds? For the treasure? Who is the monster again?

    Start looking at the game that way, and it ruins the fun for a lot of people. Maybe some people want really difficult moral choices in their D&D, but I suspect most just want to kill monsters and take their stuff, and not feel fucking guilty about it.

    So alignment keeps the game simple and guilt-free. No matter which alignment you choose, the game has given you permission to kill monsters and take their stuff. If you're Good, you're killing Evil monsters, because they're Evil and need to die. If you're Evil, then you're killing everyone, because you're Evil and you don't care. If you're Neutral, you've basically said you're selfishly not taking sides (let's assume it's selfish not to take the Good path, but not to commit to Evil either); in any case, your Neutral character is killing everyone who stands in his way, but is probably fighting Evil most of the time, because you only chose Neutral because it sounded the most like Libertarianism.
  • I can understand that "absolute good and evil" thing. I trully dislike it. It is stereotypical, unrealistic and ethically questionable.

    That is why I love this webcomic. :D

    Besides, that extremist view, while keeping the game simple, also keeps me from the real meat of roleplaying heroes and "human" people.

    And that is why while I loves me my D&D, I'd avoid playing with kill-the-monster-take-his-stuff type players as hard as I can. ^_^
  • Interesting; wondering how this works for you with respect to things like Circle of Protection from Chaos and holy water. How does the water know you're selfish? How does the Circle know you don't follow any code (which kinda sounds like a code to me, all in all)?


    Cheers,
    Roger
  • Okay, so if you're playing shades-of-gray with the alignment system, how do you justify the stuff your characters do regularly?
  • edited February 2009
    Posted By: TristanI can understand that "absolute good and evil" thing. I trully dislike it. It is stereotypical, unrealistic and ethically questionable [...]
    Besides, that extremist view, while keeping the game simple, also keeps me from the real meat of roleplaying heroes and "human" people.
    When you play an SF game, does it also bother you that your characters can travel faster than the speed of light?

    D&D's alignment system is a lot like the speculative premise of SF — we assume something that isn't true and explore the consequences. D&D is "ethics fiction" where, by hypothesis, we all agree that there really are these ethical objects with independent, objective existence, and that have real physical consequences in the game world. If your character is evil, then he will be repelled by a Circle of Protection, and a paladin will be able to see it in him the same way that you or I can see the color of someone's hair. If we like, we can debate the extent to which D&D "evil" corresponds to IRL "evil", whether IRL "evil" has a referent at all, and so on, and speaking as a philosophy major (lo these many years ago), I believe that can be fun too. But we will never get around to killing any goblins and taking their stuff, which, when we said we were playing D&D, I think we agreed on.

    Alignment is to ethics what THAC0/AC is to ballistics — I'm with you when you call it stereotypical, but that is precisely the point of it.

    On a friendlier note, Tristan, maybe you and I can be the only people in the entire world who think there's something worth exploring in "Power Kill" (the B-side of Puppetland).
  • Also, "stereotypical" just means that distinctions are flattened for rules purposes, not for character-playing ones. Dr. No and Ravana are both Lawful Evil by my reckoning, but one is a monomaniacal would-be oppressor, while the other is more nuanced, a demonic serial rapist who nonetheless rules unchallenged over a utopian kingdom and exhibits the most flawless piety. A paladin wouldn't tolerate either in her party, but that doesn't subtract from the fact that Ravana is an interesting and engaging (lawful evil) character rather than a cookie-cutter Bond villain.
  • @ ccreitz: See, I agree with you actually (in every respect -- even wrt to Power Kill, which i think is a work of genius).

    @ Tristan: But I'm also sort of with you.

    I think alignment is the one thing in DnD that actually promotes role-play, and more than that I think it's pretty much the foundation of every personality mechanic in RPGs. I think you can draw a line from DnD's alignments through to Pendragon's Passions and Vampire's Humanity and all the way through to games like Dogs, which do the precise opposite of alignment. If that makes sense. It's part of the context in which we make our RPGs.

    I mean, yes, alignments are unrealistic, but so are levels and so are BABs and so are THAC0s and so are, heaven help us, owlbears.

    They are part of the game, and part of the experience of play. Just so levels are a tool to help you renegotiate the game every so often, so alignments are a tool to express certain parts of the praxis of the game. Does that make sense?

    I wouldn't play DnD without alignment, because alignment is the main thing that still makes DnD (to me) interesting.
  • My main point is that D&D chose the fantasy-based alignment system it has for a reason. It could have done something very different to promote role-playing. (In fact, I argue that D&D uses races and classes as role-playing promotion tools.) But alignments promote black and white role-play, with sharp divisions between good and evil. 4E backed off that a bit, and that makes many people happy, but they still have creatures who are inescapably Evil.

    Accurately labeling a sentient being as "good" or "evil" is something I don't think you can do in real life. Sure, we do it all the time, I suppose, but are the labels fair? I suppose this is about to become a philosophical discussion, from which nothing good (pardon the pun) can come.
  • Posted By: ccreitzWhen you play an SF game, does it also bother you that your characters can travel faster than the speed of light?
    It would if there was not the simplest attempt at giving it a "plausible" explanation.

    My suspension of disbelieve is willing to accept some level of abstraction and RL inaccuracy, as long as I can somehow relate to it. If people just said "Your character can travel that fast, and that's it." I would be bothered. It would seem arbitrary and incoherent to me (and it actually is not all that different to saying "A wizard did it!")

    And so I aim more at a shades-of-gray style, rather than "goblins are evil, just because."
    Posted By: ccreitzAlso, "stereotypical" just means that distinctions are flattened for rules purposes, not for character-playing ones. Dr. No and Ravana are both Lawful Evil by my reckoning, but one is a monomaniacal would-be oppressor, while the other is more nuanced, a demonic serial rapist who nonetheless rules unchallenged over a utopian kingdom and exhibits the most flawless piety. A paladin wouldn't tolerate either in her party, but that doesn't subtract from the fact that Ravana is an interesting and engaging (lawful evil) character rather than a cookie-cutter Bond villain.
    And that is why I'd rather have those characters in my game, interesting and engaging, complex and with understandable goals.


    Now, my thing is that I preffer Archetypical systems over Stereotypical ones. Shades rather than simplistic opposites.
  • Wood - Dogs' take on alignment is actually closely approximated by Vampire's Paths, especially custom Paths, what Justin Achilli memorably called "the Path Of Whatever The Fuck I Was Going To Do Anyway". That guy has a way with words.

    Also, if you think owlbears are "unrealistic," maybe you should have a talk with my friend Hoorarrgirr.
  • edited February 2009
    Posted By: RogerInteresting; wondering how this works for you with respect to things like Circle of Protection from Chaos and holy water. How does the water know you're selfish? How does the Circle know you don't follow any code (which kinda sounds like a code to me, all in all)?
    The way I deal with this is by assuming that your way of thinking gives you a certain "vibe". That vibe can be interpreted at some mystical level as a sort of "aura". And then those spells and objects deal with that aura. You might think of them as "emphatic magic".

    Our general mood and philosophy can change our chemistry, health and energy. Ask your nearest chef or doctor!
  • Tristan - there you go! Whatever that "vibe" is, that's what D&D Good or Evil is! If it helps you to call the alignments "Axis A" and "Axis B", and say "My character's alignment is around (.9, .1)", or "He has a vibe that paladins pick up on and reject", rather than "He's Lawful Evil", you should do that, and we can go find those goblins with stuff and kill them and take it. It will be a blast!

    Once we're done, we can do in-game "ethical science" where we hash out what properties of a character lead to what alignment-based effects and so on, which might also be fun, as long as we're all playing with the same "physics of morality". In the fluff for OWOD Vampire, interestingly enough, there is a Malkavian scientist who spends his unlife doing exactly that thing. It seems like a fun campaign idea for a group that consists of, say, Tristan and the Philosophy Department — I'd play, as long as we could agree that we're coming to grips with the difference between the real and extant "evil" of D&D and our characters' own ethical principles.

    Just note that "Circle of Protection Against Low Axis B Values" (or "... Against Paladin-Upsetting Vibes") lacks a certain resonance for some players. You might even say that it runs counter to the archetypes we expect to encounter in fantasy role-play, if you wanted to be a smartass about it.
  • If you're going to discard the black and white distinctions of D&D alignment, what good does having an alignment system do for your game? Instead of saying, "My paladin is Good," say, "My paladin believes in the sanctity of life and personal freedoms, yet he's willing to cut down any person that threatens those things for others"? Which is a better role-playing tool?

    If the label is essentially meaningless because of shades of gray and moral relativism, what purpose does it serve as a game mechanic?
  • edited February 2009
    Posted By: Adam Dray
    If the label is essentially meaningless because of shades of gray and moral relativism, what purpose does it serve as a game mechanic?
    Simplification.

    My point is not to completelly drop "Good" and "Evil". My point is how would my character react to different situations because he is good or evil. And just because I don't agree with everything the Paladin does or says, that doesn't mean I can't be a very LG person too. That is pretty much my point. There are many possible interpretations of good and evil. We could stick to labeling it as such. But how interesting does it get if I just play every LG character exactly the same?

    Think of this in a similar way to what Graham did in the other thread (which is why I mentioned that one in the OP).

    The same way a low Charisma can mean being a geeky thief, I can roleplay a LE character as either a honorable assasin, a cold and creepy psycho or as a megalomaniac who believes he is the answer to the world's problems. Wheeee!!! And I am not breaking in any way the Alignments system as given by the book.
  • edited February 2009
    Why I like alignment in D&D:

    1. More cool spells
    2. Killing evil things if super fun.
    3. Sometimes restrictions are good for creativity
    4. If you don't have alignments it increases the odds of there being an emo character.
    5. Heroic deeds happen in the space where worlds are being sucked into abyss by demonic forces or ancient liches are sacrificing the blood of innocents for the crystal of zoomibadoo. Not in the space where you have to decide whats for dinner or whose turn it is to pay the electricity bill. In heroic spaces you need good and evil, light and dark.
  • I don't mind an archetypical framework to simplify moral and ethical stances, but the place that tends to interest me a lot is where human emotions (fear, lust, greed, vanity, etc.) comes into direct personal conflict with the construct. Lancelot and Guinevere, for instance. Lancelot's loyalty is deeply ingrained in his very being, but...suddenly Guinevere. That's neat. "I'm LG so I just don't even notice her and go about slaying more evil minions" is meh (unless I'm in one of those evil minion slaying moods).
  • In line with making the "lawful" alignment more about being principled, I like playing chaotic characters as focused on a bunch of specific goals rather than a few big principles.

    "Look, these children are dying in a time of prosperity. She's dehydrated and he's starving. This is all too common. Clearly, we need another well close by, cheaper food in the low market, and better access to healers. So let's dig a well in the square there today, plant rooftop gardens throughout the city over the next few weeks, and smuggle in some elvish druids. Right! We need shovels, bean seeds, and a hole in the eastern wall."

    I like archetypal good and evil alignments. If you play good characters, every evil monster shows you just how far you can fall. And if you play evil characters, you get a better view of just how easy it is to shake people off the tightrope. So the world seems all the more perilous.
  • I see Lawful Good characters as believing that the greatest good is achieved by adherence to a strict codified system of behavior which provides meaning and purpose to one's actions and without which there is no objective way to judge good and evil. Chaotic Good characters believe that such a hierarchical social system is oppressive no matter how good its intentions, something to be resisted while the greatest good can only be found through the actions of free individuals. With diametrically opposed views like that I think you can have two good characters on opposite sides of an argument or even a war (e.g. Superman v. Batman in The Dark Knight) while keeping both focused on doing good and allowing both to be principled.
  • Very interesting discussion. I've been thinking of how to justify alignment and make it more interesting. Something I go back to is that the idea came from a series of books where Law and Chaos were in direct conflict. I think The Rod of Seven parts is specifically about this. So your alignment is literally who you have aligned yourself with. When the final showdown happens, and a winner has been declared, who did you support? Do you get the spoils, or are you the spoils?

    This is kind of easy to see when you're looking at a setting like Dragonlance. It's Paladine vs Takhisis, and then the Chaos comes in. You have alignment with good, evil, law and chaos, and 3 of them are personified in some fashion or other. If you look at some of the more generic settings in D&D, like Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, alignment doesn't seem to matter. There are small skirmishes here and there, but it's not at the final showdown stage, the way it is in DL. In Planescape alignment clearly matters as well, as the planes have been designed according to the 9 alignments and they're personified, and there are various wars going on. Dark Sun also brings things in, if you're evil you side with the Sorcerer Kings, with the ultimate evil being the Dragon. If you're good you side with the people, and the ultimate good is the Avingon. Law and Chaos isn't there quite as much, but you still have an area where alignment matters, and you can see alignment being a team thing. Birthright does it too, you've got Azrai and the Awnsheighlen on Evil, and everyone else on Good.
  • Geeky Question to all you, people.

    Superman is clearly a LG guy.

    What about Batman? (I expect a lot of people saying he is CG. Is he really?)
  • edited February 2009
    He's neutral good, I think. He's very much on the side of law and order and clearly believes that rules (both the legal system and more ephemeral social rules) are valuable...but he deliberately sits himself outside those rules and does What Must Be Done to set things right. He will break laws in order to capture and punish lawbreakers, but not for personal gain or just on a whim. Gotham City is rife with corruption, but Batman's response is always to remove the corrupt officials, never to question the system itself: he believes in the system when it is not run by evil people.

    Also, whenever you see an Elseworlds where Bruce Wayne isn't tormented by the loss of his parents, he generally becomes a stand-up, right-thinking, squared-away solid citizen, as lawful as the day is long; that's probably the person he longs to be, but Gotham's just too dirty to ever allow him to be that person.
  • edited February 2009
    My take is that he is LG.

    See, he might stay outside of the Law, but he only breaks the rules for the greater good, and (as Tasty mentioned) he does so only when it is run by evil people.

    And, you see, he is this rational, highly disciplined individual with a strict code of conduct he forces himself to follow, even by sacrificing himself (in pretty much every possible sense).

    So he is a tool for order and law, even while he is not the "by the book" type.

    I like doing this sort of stuff. Figuring (and justifying) comics, movies or books characters' alignments. And trying to see how misleading sometimes things get.
  • Posted By: TristanSee, he might stay outside of the Law, but he only breaks the rules for the greater good, and (as Tasty mentioned) he does so only when it is run by evil people.

    And, you see, he is this rational, highly disciplined individual with a strict code of conduct he forces himself to follow, even by sacrificing himself (in pretty much every possible sense).
    If he were truly LG, wouldn't that indicate a belief that the "good" system be self repairing? If it's not self repairing, then you need to work outside of it, hence NG. Disowning the system altogether would be CG, clearly not what he's done either.
  • edited February 2009
    Tristan makes a decent argument for a LG Batman -- and in fact, that's what I love about alignment, there's so much room to argue there.

    I really only slid ol' Bats into NG turf because he does, on occasion, break his own codes when he needs to, and shows no remorse for it. But those are very much edge cases, and for all I know he's weeping about them between panels: internally, in his own mind? That's where he could absolutely be LG, no doubt about it.

    Externally, what someone else in the JLA would classify him as? That'd almost certainly be NG. He loves the law, but does not live by it. He's hyper-organized and has plans for everything, but does not put his faith exclusively in organizations or planning.



    ...he's kind of a dick, too, but obviously not as much as Superman is.
  • Batman's alignment changes on who's writing him.
  • Posted By: Accounting for TasteTristan makes a decent argument for a LG Batman -- and in fact, that's what I love about alignment, there's so much room to argue there.
    That's why I love them too. And the main reason I decided to start this thread.

    Gives you a lot of room for interpretation, roleplaying and fun.

    I can compromise he is a NG guy with Lawful tendencies. :D
  • Superman's a dick? Was that sarcasm or do I just not read enough Superman?
  • Personally I haven't yet gotten a whole lot of mileage out of alignments. My D&D characters have tended to be True Neutral or Neutral Good (Unaligned or Good in 4e), possibly because good vs evil and law vs chaos aren't issues that immediately grab me. I'm much more focused on introvert vs extrovert.

    But, here's a question: Are there any other games that have Alignments (without them being a slavish imitation of D&D)?
  • Batman is Lawful Neutral!

    Who does he fight? Bad guys, in an general kind of way. But always threats to the established order, whether it's supercriminals like the Joker or just purse-snatchers.

    Is he outside? No! He's an extension of the law. The police summon Batman when annoying things like evidence, civil rights, laws against excessive force... you get the idea. He's the arm of the law without all of the annoying democratic protections it's supposed to afford.

    And why does he do it? Kicks? Vengeance for his parents? Whatever, his motives seem to be personal rather than altruistic.

    I ran my last campaign trying to really play with alignments by having the players play as mostly evil monster characters in a goblin city. The point of the campaign was that evil isn't inherent, it's trained. The only way the characters could escape being slaves was by enlisting as slave drivers. One player was a lawful evil goblin cleric, who delivered sermons on the righteousness of slavery. Another was a chaotic neutral kobold sorceror/dragonmage who simply had friendly chats with his fellow slave-drivers and just tried to improve his lot. Another was a chaotic evil ogre fighter who was looking for work, and liked any society in which he was free to munch on the odd goblin slave when he got hungry.
  • All this talk of alignment and comics has made me realize something. Rorsharch was a Lawful Good Rogue. Think about it, right? What are his skills? He could find places to get vital information from. He would then proceed to interrogate whatever luckless souls that were within there until he got the information he needed. Then he'd follow that info, his one track mind going full force. When confronted, how did he defend himself? He'd set traps with ordinary items, improvise weapons, make use of his superior agility. He would brutally murder killers and rapists and shop lifters. And why? Because his justice was absolute. Because there's good and evil, the gray area was made up by the bad people. I dunno, if I can ever find a 4E game when I go to Nuke School, I'm gonna try to get the DM to let me do up a Lawful Good Rogue. I think I'm starting to like alignments too.

    Neko Ewen- Uhhh... geez, how about that, huh? I'm drawing a blank. All the ones I can think of like CnC, LL, SW, they're all DnD derivatives.
  • You see? When used appropriatelly they can be an amazing source for fun and roleplaying. :D
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