Thursday, February 3, 2022

Grousing About Alignment

I've been ruminating about this for several days. (A month or two, maybe?) I expect it was sparked by some passing discourse or other, but who can say?

But first, a word about personal bias: As noted elsewhere, I believe it's important to understand an author's inherent biases, so here is one of mine: I don't believe in an objective, explicit, cosmological idea of morality, sin, or evil. If you reduce all energy and matter in the universe into the finest dust, past the level of atoms or quarks or superstrings, you will find no modicum of good or evil in your sieve.

Good and evil can exist as personal concepts and frameworks, but not as large moral structures.

As such, I tend to disagree with The Dreaded Discourse™ about how alignment is problematic and ought to be excised from fantasy games. For me, alignment is the goofy, escapist fantasy. The universe is ethically grey and politically complicated, and sometimes it's nice to imagine a world where moral issues are (comparatively) simple. (I say "comparatively" because invariably every Game Master throws in a weird, moral conundrum independent of alignment. Sometimes, people do good things for bad reasons or bad things for good reasons, even in objective moral systems.)

I know it is not an escape for everybody — and more power to you if you excise it from your games! — but for me, alignment is one of those things that only makes sense in a fantasy world or as a learning tool. And, gee whiz, wouldn't it be nice if the world were simple sometimes?

Hopefully, this nearly explains why I don't typically worry about alignment as much as some Referees do. I suspect a lot of people conflate in-game moral assumptions with real-life moral assumptions and invariably talk past one another.

At any rate, we have now come rather far afield of the main point I wanted to make with this post. Ask me to elaborate on my thoughts about morality sometime if you want to get into a long, boring conversation about it.

And with that aside complete, onto the main post:

While my engagement with fantasy class-and-level games is comparatively recent, the arguments about alignment have existed since the beginning of the hobby. It's the standard problem: art creators have certain assumptions that everyone has the same background, the subculture around the art grows, the background conditions change, and almost nobody has the originally assumed commonalities anymore.

Growth is often painful.

But I suspect the problem with alignment isn't so much a disagreement as a lack of common definitions. (As with most problems, this issue is broadly applicable to life outside table-top role-playing games.) When people talk about alignment, they are often discussing one of three related concepts:

  • Alignment-as-personality: I suspect this is what most modern gamers think about when they're contemplating alignment. When you make a D&D character, this is probably what you're putting on your character sheet: an alignment that represents your fictional character's moral center. In this regard, it is similar to Nature and Demeanor from World of Darkness or Virtue and Vice from Chronicles of Darkness or Obsession from Unknown Armies — it's a phrase on your character sheet so when you're stuck and wondering, "What would my character do?" you can reference your sheet and maybe get an idea. It's not a rules thing so much as a reminder to yourself.
    • Incidentally, this is where some of the thorniness over "what constitutes acting within your alignment" emerges. Right and wrong operate somewhat independent of morality — an immoral person can do the right thing, and a moral person can make stupid decisions. So it is with law-vs.-chaos and good-vs.-evil: you can probably make a case for any given individual action with any given alignment. However, you can probably make a reasonable expectation that a character's actions over time will more obviously cleave to one side or the other.
    • This can also be confusing because individual players might consider this more subjective or objective depending on their preferences. Being "lawful" might constitute literally following the law or just having a strong personal code. Being "chaotic" might mean might-makes-right or being a free-spirit or just being random. That's something you might want to discuss during character creation.
  • Alignment-as-affiliation: This is more of the classical, Moorcockian view of alignment you might expect from earlier editions of D&D. (Cynical readers might also consider this the default for people who, say, preach certain moral frameworks to which they do not abide.) In this schema, alignment is less of a personal moral framework and more of a political affiliation (or sports team allegiance, if you prefer that analogy). The black hobbits described by Ken St. Andre and Jeff Rients also reside in this paradigm. (Weirdly, 4e also asserted this as the "default" moral framework for that edition, although I don't know how many people used it.) Characters using alignment as a political affiliation might have any sort of morality, but they throw their support behind a particular cause. Anybody who is "just following orders" could probably be seen to have this sort of alignment. If you have ever been baffled by someone who seems very nice but holds weird, backwards views about the world outside of their narrow band of existence, you might have encountered someone with this sort of relationship to alignment. As in real-life, though, I expect that if you follow a particular affiliation for long enough, you'll begin to adopt its values, sooner or later. (And probably sooner.)
    • This is another source of confusion, because it's possible to imagine someone whose views are initially incompatible with their alignment until you dig deeper. The nice little old lady next door who supports the Dark Lord because he makes the trains run on time could easily have a Chaotic alignment even though her life and outward demeanor is seemingly orderly.
    • In a lot of ways, this is the most alien form of alignment to those with heavily-internalized, cultural Calvinism, because "good" is always bound with "right" and "evil" is always bound with "wrong." It is difficult to imagine someone who hypocritically holds both, even though most of us do it all the time. (We just don't like to examine it too closely.)
  • Alignment-as-physiology: This is the realm of the supernal and the extradimensional. Angels and demons are always going to be Lawful and Chaotic, respectively, and changing their alignment probably changes the base creature. The long tradition of supernatural creatures in mythology and literature means that this is the easiest to understand and also the least morally challenging component of alignment: zombies are mindless and always antagonistic, so there is no moral challenge or consequence to killing them.
    • Of course, this causes a lot of the confusion in the other categories as people conflate this type of alignment with the other two types. Detect evil and good often only detects supernatural forces rather than someone's personal alignment, for instance. Likewise, this is where a lot of the debate about "always chaotic evil" creatures arises, as people assume game designers mean this (orcs are evil and always will be no matter what their environment is like) when they often mean one of the other two things (orcs are Chaotic because most of them have thrown in their lot with Sauron and were never given a moral choice, for example).

So there you go. The next time the inevitable alignment debate arises at your table, you now have a framework to start interrogating what the players mean. Do you think the alignment is a fantasy Meyers-Briggs type, or your political party, or an inherent and unchangeable thing?

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