The Seven-Sided Die

What's wrong with alignment

Posted Thursday September 04, 2008 at 11:50 PM

My recent return to 1st edition AD&D has been illuminating. Re-reading the books now, I realise that much of what I thought was "wrong" with the game then was a product of my immaturity, both as a person and as a gamer and GM. I've been a D&D player of various editions after AD&D, and many mistaken impressions I established then have followed my play since. Not least of these is the meaning and purpose of alignment, although I have the dubious consolation that I'm very much not alone in that.

Alignment is usually maligned as unnecessarily restrictive, offering a stereotype of behaviour that drastically limits roleplay. It's been accused of stifling creativity and mechanically enforcing play decisions. I've felt this way about it, more or less, for most of my roleplaying career. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I began reading those old books and found that it was never intended as such.

Over at the excellent Gnome Stew, Walt Ciechanowski writes of alignment that "[it] only seems universally acceptable in games where it is an explicit part of the genre (e.g. jedi knights and occult professors reading things that they shouldn’t)." What made this jump out at me is that alignment in D&D was, originally, an explicit in-fiction mark of which sides of the cosmic battles of Good versus Evil and Law versus Chaos the characters had literally aligned themselves with. Alignment was an explicit setting detail.

(Oddly to our sensibilitiese, the Law versus Chaos battle, culminating in Ragnarok, was the more important one. That's why OD&D has the tripartite Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic alignment system that baffles so many modern gamers.)

That detail makes alignment in D&D make so much more sense. Alignment languages (anyone remember those?) seemed odd and out of place to me, but they were actual in-game Shibboleths that people in the game setting were aware of. Gygax noted in the AD&D Players Guide that it was a grave social faux-pas to speak in an alignment tongue in public.

The alignment restrictions also made more sense. It wasn't that only certain alignments could become Paladins or Monks, but that such organisations only existed within certain sides of the cosmic war. Similarly, the harsh penalties for changing alignments wasn't an arbitrary mechanic to enforce behavioural compliance with an even-more-arbitrary rules feature. Rather, those lost experience points and class abilities represented the character's loss of moral compass and place in the world that comes from transitioning through moral crisis, abandoning everything they once thought they understood, and discovering their place in the world anew through a fundamentally different conceptual lens.

Of course, the players of the game who misunderstood that aren't entirely at fault. The game itself, though explicit in a rare few places and implicit in a few others, undermined this by equivocating with the meaning of alignment. Mostly, this happened by over-using non-Neutral alignments. If the typical city-dweller your character comes across is Lawful Good just because they're a townie and thus invested in good government and orderly life, that cheapens the meaning of a character having aligned themselves relative to the cosmic struggle. Monsters are the worst for this: is it really plausible that every random non-animal creature encountered has either taken a moral stand on a cosmic scale, or is in the direct or indirect employ of the greater powers? Perhaps in some campaigns, but even in those the GM would have needed a good grip on the point of alignment in the first place, which wasn't a given.

An over-use of alignment in the original books implied that it was just what people took it to be: a simple indication of a broad behavioural profile. A more sparing treatment of it would have kept it clear and purposeful, maintaining its status as a marker of alignment with a cause.

Of course, later editions of D&D did not share the implied setting that featured such a cosmic war, yet they retained the concept of alignment. More blame for the oddness of the alignment system can probably be laid at the feet of 2nd edition AD&D and D&D 3.x. They no longer had Ragnarok looming in the future to motivate heroes to align themselves with or against the forces of Chaos, yet alignment remained. In these editions, it really did just serve as an odd and inflexible behavioural rule of thumb.

Ironically, though this is essay is overall a defense of alignment in D&D, I do think that it really should have been removed entirely from all editions from 2e on. It's now more of a hindrance than a help, and there are much more interesting and better ways of fostering focused character behaviour and roleplay.

Comments (3)


Friday June 05, 2009 at 07:07 AM

I always thought the Lawful restriction of monks was due less to their allegiance in a cosmic battle, and more to the fact that monastic discipline is an inherently rule-based, hierarchical, orderly way of life. Likewise for paladins, who historically owed their allegiance to a liege lord and therefore had a stake in maintaining the social order, (allegedly) for the good of all.

Like it does so many other things, 4e gets alignment horribly wrong, because it takes two orthogonal axes and flattens them into some ill-conceived, one-dimensional hybrid. In prior editions, being Lawful didn't make you any more Good than neutral good, and being Chaotic didn't make you any more evil. But now that everything's on one scale, you really don't have an alignment to represent Robin Hood or, conversely, someone like Javert from Les Miserables.


Saturday June 06, 2009 at 05:39 PM

My understanding of the "cosmic struggle" model of alignment is that everyone of a particular alignment serves those Powers, even if they don't know it. So, yeah, the alignment restrictions on monks and paladins are because of their disciplined way of life, regardless of what's going on in the cosmos. In a setting that has that Melnibonean cosmic struggle (which was in the assumed setting of 1e), they're also literally-aligned with and pawns of the powers of Law in that struggle. Re-reading it, it looks like I glossed over that distinction in the article. The organisations only existed on that side of the conflict because only that side had such orderly people.

Of course, that broke down in 2e when that "cosmic struggle" thing was dropped from the assumed setting, but then 2e wasn't written by Gygax and they were just recycling and updating what existed without knowing about the unwritten assumptions that went into 1e.

As for alignment in 4e, there are so many things wrong with 4e for playing the way I want to play that the alignment is almost below my radar. I'll agree that it's abominable, though. Why keep alignment at all, at that point? Of all the sacred cows they chose to keep, that one and that form makes the least sense.

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