19 October 2014

Alignments are still stupid

Just in case anyone had forgotten, alignments are still stupid and valueless.

We get along in daily life just fine without alignments. We know that ISIS are a pretty bad lot, and we don't need a know alignment spell for that. Thing is, nothing is as simple as an alignment makes it out to be. They don't think they're evil. They think they're good, and we're evil. They're not, like a demon, out to cause suffering - they're out to *right wrongs* and *fight evildoers* and *do god's work*. They're the *good guys* - to them.

Contrast that with something unambiguous, like a demon. It lives to cause suffering, sow confusion, turn brother against brother. It feeds on discord and disharmony. It has one goal: harm. It is *evil*. But that's not an alignment, that's its *nature*.

Was Donald Rumsfeld chaotic evil? He certainly seems like it, but a more probable explanation than the apparent one (he just wants to cause mayhem and suffering) is that he's on a deeply misguided quest to help himself and his friends and maybe his country. So, is he lawful good? Chaotic good?

He's not evil or good or lawful or chaotic - he's just a person, like anyone else.

Sure, you could assign an alignment to him, argue your case, and I could assign another one, and argue my case, and at the end of the day - how has that helped us understand him? How does that help us in any way?
Assigning an alignment to Rumsfeld doesn't help us at all.

Another example: was Gaddafi chaotic evil? He did some twisted shit, to be sure, but he also eradicated homelessness in Libya, fought for the rights of women and blacks (elements of society traditionally crushed underfoot in North African/Arab/Muslim society), worked to reduce income inequality, sought pan-Arab and then pan-African solidarity - creating the African Union. He worked within the law when it suited him, and outside the law when it suited him. Sometimes he did good, sometimes he did evil.

Was he Chaotic Good? Was he Lawful Evil? You could make a convincing case for both. You could make a strong case for Chaotic Neutral.

The point is, the alignment system doesn't actually work. Everybody is all of the alignments some of the time. We're people, we're complex. We can't be reduced to a two-axis chart.

I should hope your PCs and NPCs are the same.


  1. Alignment has long since rubbed me the wrong way and I promptly turned to ignoring it. Where I stand now is that Neutral, Law and Chaos are predispositions towards, against or neither to law. They aren't restrictive nor are they indicative of a single thing. Outside those, everyone has an agenda and that's about as far as I'm willing to go.

  2. Here, Here! Alignments have been missing from my AD&D world for over 25 years. I'd like to think that my NPCs have motivations and will react to the Characters' actions, rather than saying to the player, "you cannot do that it is against your character's alignment".
    Also, as the DM, it keeps me on my toes, because I never know for sure how any one encounter, or story arc, will go.

  3. I hold that alignments aren't stupid, but the labels and associated baggage those labels have are stupid. Remove the ethical and moral component of alignments and alignments work as they were probably intended, to designate the different sides of a conflict that affects mortals but is really quite beyond them.

  4. I also don't use alignments. But if I did, it would be a pretty basic expectation that if Good, you help everyone regardless of who they are to you; Neutral, you help your family and friends; Evil, you are obliged to help nobody at all.

    1. I think having "expections" is the worst side of alignments - it's really just telling players how to play their characters. It's their character, they can play it how they please!

      The number of threads on /r/DnD/ with GM's whining that their players aren't playing their alignments properly, or if they should "allow" certain actions for this alignment or that, or players whining that other players aren't doing alignments right...

  5. Roger is too modest; he wrote the definitive post on alignments
    .. .

    1. Indeed, it was a good series! I wasn't really looking to add anything new, mostly just venting :)

  6. I've really come around to the original conception of alignment as being more about sides than one's ethical or moral views, though I'll probably complicate things so there's more than just two sides plus neutrals

    If one does stick with the AD&D approach, I think it's best to ditch subjectivity and strictly define each alignment. Doesn't matter what you think is good or evil, those terms have a particular meaning in the context of a given campaign. They should be used as a tool for the referee, not a straightjacket for the player or a means of denying them agency. One should not be penalized for not playing to type. Rather, the referee should make note of the character's behavior and evaluate what alignment they're being played as

    So, players shouldn't worry about acting in accordance with their alignment, nor should the referee box them into whatever alignment they pick (honestly, they shouldn't even be picking one for themselves), either by saying "Your character wouldn't do that" or by taking away experience points or whatever. If the player finds a magic sword that only obeys lawful fighting-men and strikes chaotic ones, the referee will ask themselves how the character's been played thus far to determine the sword's reaction

  7. The three basic alignments from OD&D (Law, Neutrality, Chaos) were a way of sorting out which unit is going to be hostile to which other units on the battlefield. It was presumably based on the Elric stories. So far so good.

    Roger's post linked above does a good job of addressing what happened when Gygax decided to gussy it up with his "advanced" rules: like most of the rest of D&D, the "Advanced" version was incoherent and contradictory with the original intention of the system, striving for an idiosyncratic ideal of "realism" cooked up in Gary's brain.

    1. I would have thought it would always have been rather obvious which units were hostile to which on the battlefield in a miniatures game...

    2. Look at it this way. It was done so that you knew that your army filled with elves was not going to also have goblins and orcs because they are on different sides.

    3. I understand the reasoning, I just don't see how it's in any way useful to include that in the game. There may well be some reason elves and orcs fight on the same side.

      You can bet if Legolas and Grishnak were fighting and Shelob came by, they'd forget their differences pretty quick.

      I just don't see any advantage to putting stuff like that in the rules vs. explicitly allowing people to run their games how they like.

    4. Well lucky thing that D&D works with and without alignment. I used alignment, not used alignment, used 3,5, and 9 point alignment, and even used alternate alignments.
      If you don't want to use alignment that is totally ok. The game does not break down.

    5. And whether Greenleaf Greenleaf would side with Grishnak against Shelob, I highly doubt they would ally to fight the spider. Either or both sides would try to use the other as a distraction just long enough to kill or flee. Any possible alliance would last all of one combat encounter.

    6. Sorry this is s month late, but here's the text from page 39 of Chainmail (which is part of the "Fantasy Supplement"):

      It is impossible to draw a distinct line between "good" and "evil" fantastic figures. Three categories are listed below as a general guide for the wargamer designing orders of battle involving fantastic creatures:

      Super Heroes
      Magic Weapons

      Lycanthropes *

      Wizards *
      True Trolls
      Giants *

      * Indicates the figure appears in two lists.

      Underlined Neutral figures have a slight pre-disposition for LAW.

      Neutral figures can be diced for to determine on which side they will fight, with ties meaning they remain neutral.

  8. Even if you take out alignment associated spells, you are left with an issue of magic items (like intelligent swords) that are associated with alignment. Earlier editions of the game have less of these than, say, AD&D, but there are still a number of "personality changing" artifacts...curse scrolls, helms of alignment change, etc....that either need to be removed or accounted for.

    I'm not saying it doesn't make sense to remove alignment, but there are some mechanical ramifications.

  9. The big problem with the stock D&D alignment system is that it tries to do double-duty as both a character's internal system of ethics and self-perception that she is compelled to follow AND as an external system by which that character is judged.

    I agree that dictating character conduct is counterproductive and generally a waste of time, for various reasons that I don't want to get sidetracked into at the moment. A DM may, and I think should, provide consequences for virtuous and malevolent acts, but he should not dictate player character conduct. If we discard the internal component of alignment, then we are left with a fairly decent foundation for tracking how the world perceives characters through their cumulative conduct. In effect, alignment becomes another name for a reputation system, which is an awesome tool for encouraging characters to behave in a particular manner provided that the DM is clear on the consequences of characters' actions.

    We can look to historical epithets for inspiration: the Good, the Accursed, the Bold, the Holy, the Merciful, the Cruel, and the Evil, to name just a few.

    It's not difficult to formulate a point system for tracking character reputation/alignment, and from there to create consequences for particular reputations. A character known for mercy may have an easier time getting opponents to surrender; a character known for impaling prisoners may have an easier time getting opponents to run away but a harder time getting them to willingly surrender.

  10. Gygax and Arneson have one dumb, silly, 1970s imaginary ideal and 40 years later people are still debating it - as though there's anything to debate.

    Have we accepted yet that the Bermuda Triangle was always a non-thing?