[WoED20] – Unaligned

I know exactly what I’m walking into here. No matter what I may write in the future, it is unlikely to cause nearly as much dissension as this one’s going to.

Yeah, I’m going to talk about the Dungeons and Dragons meta-mechanic known as ‘alignment’.

Let’s set some ground rulers first. In the comments and on the forum, I would very much appreciate it if people would refrain from the following: Making real-world political and religious comparisons, telling people they play or use alignment wrong, and especially no telling anyone they’re roleplaying wrong. This is a subject that can catch like a goddamn greasefire and one of the reasons (as I’ll explain later) is that everyone is right. Yes, you’re right. But the person who you think has obviously just not read the books properly is also right.

And also, while I know a bit and will relate some of the history of this… thing… I am mostly aware of how 3e and 4e handled it and some of 5e, so there may be some obscure source book out there that explains stuff better than the core of those three, but I’m not taking that into account as most people never mention it.

Okay. So.

People who kind of know me from back when I frequented the wizards.com boards and who have seen that I’m designing my own d20 game have been very curious as to what I plan to do about the alignment system seeing as I became rather famous for starting a project to extricate it from 3.5 D&D and for coining the term ‘detect – thump paladin’ (The type of Paladin who uses Detect Evil all the time, then murders whoever pings).

Short answer… I’m not including it. I know most of these people were just poking playful fun, but some of them seem honestly hopeful that I changed my mind and… no. It’s not just a bad fit for Ere, it’s unnecessary and…

Hold on. Let’s stop just a minute because I’ve already lost half of you who don’t give a damn about gaming to start with. But I promise to tie this back into writing because a lot of alignment’s problems are shared by bad writing.

But first, a history lesson:

When D&D first got its start, its creators were trying to create a system where they could play something resembling their favorite fantasy stories. As I’ve mentioned before, Fantasy in that time was pretty much all of speculative fiction before all the other genres budded off: Sci-Fi and New Age tropes were plentiful and stuff that is now called New Weird was just regular Fantasy then.

Case in point, Moorcock’s Elric novels. I’ve never read them, but a major theme in them is the idea that the forces of Chaos are battling the forces of Law and Order in an attempt to unmake creation. Not good and evil: law and chaos. Never mind the chaos was pretty much just ‘crazy evil’, that was the core conceit.

Likewise, when D&D first started out, the struggle was Law vs Chaos. The heroes, presumably the main characters, were on the side of Law against the forces of Chaos. Only the people taking part in the struggle really mattered, so it wasn’t really necessary to consider it as anything more than a gang war: Law was Crips, Chaos was Bloods. Or vis-versa.

This was built on in many early settings, especially Mystara which had the Spheres that the Immortals (mortals ascended to pseudo godhood) hailed from being four Law-centered spheres against the Sphere of Entropy where all the demons hung out. Demons weren’t evil because they were evil, they were evil because they were on the side of Chaos ripping down reality. Neutral was the middle ground, nature, which understands that both creation and destruction are necessary.

Somewhere along the line,s I guess they realized they needed to explain this thing to people who didn’t read books about brooding albinos with evil swords and added Good and Evil. They were still teams at this point and the Law/Chaos thing was still there in some capacity. Things also started to get weird.

You see, Gary Gygax had this idea in his head that sort of equated alignment to real-world religions and so started weaving what had been just a marker for what team you were on into the actual social and metaphysical fabric of the D&D universe.

For example, in earlier additions, every creature who could speak automatically spoke the ‘language’ of their alignment and all sentient beigns of that alignment could speak it as well. And if you changed, you would forget that alignment language and instantly pick up the other one.

Alignment always was a means of having spells that only hurt enemies (Smite Evil), but it now started become a larger part of the mechanics. You had to be Good to advance in this special path ofr characters or use this item. And that really wasn’t all the big a problem because of course you were Good. It was right there on your sheet!

And then 2e hit and it changed how alignment worked. No longer was it the side you picked, it was a measure—think the karma meter some games have– of your personal ethics, morality or lack thereof. The DM was instructed to monitor the character’s behavior and change their alignment accordingly– I shit ou not, there was a goddamn chart for this. And, most infamously, there was an XP penalty for changing alignment.

I think this is where the classic 9 boxes appeared: Lawful Evil/Neutral/Good, Neutral Evil/Neutral/Good an Chaotic Evil/Neutral/Good.

More things keyed off Alignment now, but now the player had no control over what alignment they ultimately were. You could pick Chaotic Good, but if the DM thought you were being too lawful, you could say bye-bye to whatever class feature, item, or spell required you to be Chaotic. We will discuss this part later.

When 3e came around, some of the dumber stuff like alignment languages were gone, and so was the XP penalty to changing alignment. Interestingly, the chart disappeared, replaced by a vague blurb about the DM having the right to shift you.

What was left was pretty strict though. Certain classes lost powers or could never be advanced in if you stopped being a given alignment. And 2e players were very quick to exercise the 2e rules as house rules or get even more strict (A famous one I once argued against was the idea that a spell with the Descriptor tag [Evil]–which by the rules merely means it has certain interactions with other rules—was an evil act.

This wasn’t helped in the 3.5 era with the publication of The Book of Vile Darkness and The Book of Exalted Deeds. Marketed as ‘Mature Audiences Only’, these books were… simplistic isn’t the right word. The BoVD was a largely juvenile book where all evil is icky and disgusting and all things icky and disgusting are evil. Hihglights include a set of armor you could tether children to make them take damage instead of you, a feat that made you ‘like totes all fat and gross’, a race of humans whose special eeeeevil ability was being able to take Vile feats like the ‘be a fat guy’ feat, and of course, The Nipple Clamp of Exquisite Pain—because BDSM is evil, see. The BoED…had almost nothing but ‘Good’ alternative to things D&D previously (and completely arbitrarily) called evil. So you go Good poison, Good diseases, Good undead– and a Good spell that tortures a creature for a year until they turn good. How do you know they’re being tortured? Because if they break out before then, no matter what they thought of you before, they are willing to kill you now.

They also threw out a bunch of half-assed explanations into the discussion. Undead were bad because their presence brought (totally neutral) negative energy into the world. Poison is evil because it’s underhanded-which isn’t a Chaotic thing because… BECAUSE. Disease is evil because… they actually didn’t even try here. The BoVD had a Cancer mage, the BoED had Afflictions, which are magic diseases—oh and a feat that made you Typhoid Mary too—but no explanation why cancer patients are evil but setting people on fire by shaking hands isn’t.

Then came the big shake-up. 4E changed the system. Now it was Lawful Good, Good, Neutral, Evil, and Chaotic Evil plus Unaligned. This was, of course, sacrilege and against all D&D has ever stood for… which si to say it walked things back to pre-2e where you were once again choosing a side. Inf act, now you could choose to be Unaligned and not give a damn about the gods squabbling with the elementals.

At the same time, it removed almost all of the mechanical side of alignment. Clerics had to be aligned with their god, some weapons and powers had aligned effects and that was it. It was pretty happy with this because eI could just declare everything Unaligned forever and never have to pretend to care again.

So of course it’s back to the 9 boxes in 5e, but apparently, it’s just there to ‘describe your character’ (I will get into this later) and has no other effects. Of course now, as in 3.5, non-sentient undead are still inexplicably evil (how can you be evil if you can’t THINK?), but in this case it means absolutely nothing beyond some dumb designer trying to prove a point (I think they make them go on killing sprees if you stop ordering them around now. Because something that can’t think can totally decide to go rogue… somehow? I don’t even…).

So that’s where it stands and here I am using the Pathfinder (essentially 3.75 D&D) system and the 4e philosophy to build my Ere game and I’m putting my foot down when it comes to alignment. No attempts to accommodate, no compromise system, just… no. And here are my reasons:

There Are Pretty Much No Rules For It

This is a really weird thing when it comes to alignment: everyone ‘remembers’ rules that aren’t there. Either they’re recalling 2e, or making things up without realizing. In 3e and above, the books tell you what the alignments are, that the DM can change them and what classes are punished ior enabled f they don’t have the right one… and that is it.

Ignoring the BoV/ED, which were, even if they had been well written and/or thoughtful (they were not), only for Mature Audiences, that’s it. You will notice that there is no rule saying what is a good or evil act, how you change alignment or, tellingly, the negative energy is Evil.

One would imagine that most of the originators of these myths knew that they were houseruling things to be like they were in 2e or how they prefer it to be. However, a huge chunk of players don’t read the whole book and learn from the people they play with. These people took the houserules as gospel and then spread them to other groups, presenting them as fact until there were many, many groups out there with a totally different knowledge of rules that weren’t there.

This is why I chastened readers against claiming people weren’t using alignment right: because whatever rules you’re using, they are more than likely Not There. They’re how your group plays and that’s fine, but they aren’t the actual rules in most cases.

The problem is that what rules there are aren’t really supported by other rules. A Monk who ‘ceases to be Lawful’ can no longer gain levels in the monk class. But there is no actual mechanical rule for them to stop being lawful short of a magic item called the Helm of Opposite Alignment or a certain card from the artifact Deck of Many things. Both are tiny corner cases, but the existence of that line means people are very quick to make up ways to make the monk stop being Lawful, which means they’re coming up with ways to ruin the character mechanically.

I should also note that there is no positive effect of having a given alignment aside from access to certain classes. At best, it means you will not take damage or negative levels from a given effect or weapon. There are no core elements that do nice things for you if you’re good, they just decide not to hurt you.

Which is odd because…

Alignment is a Setting Element

Dungeons and Dragons in and of itself, is not a campaign setting. It often has implied settings like 4e’s Points of Light or the implication that 3e was based on Greyhawk. Basic D&D, also called the Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal of BECMI set was explicitly set in Mystara, but that’s as far as it went.

The idea is that you should be able to pick up D&D and be able to play a Fantasy game. Not just Greyhawk or Points of Light or Mystara, but basic Fantasy. Campaign Settings are add-ons that bring elements into the game to add flavor for that specific setting. Eberron brings Warforged and artificers, Dark Sun brings desert rules and Thri-Kreen, Forgotten Realms brings Mary Sues, etc.

The way it ought to work is that D&D proper provides the framework all these other games add things to in order to come up with a flavor. So if you want to play a martial artist, you play the Monk, if you want to play an archer, you play a Ranger, if you want to play a character who uses music and performance as power, you play a Bard. These are all basic Fantasy archetypes that people should be able to play in a Fantasy game.

Except we have alignment in the core game and it colors a lot of things in the core to a very specific flavor.

For starters, unless a Campaign Setting says otherwise, the 3e version of alignment says that it is not only an objective truth and measure of all things, but an actual, permeating force in the universe. In other words, Good is a thing: you can detect it, manipulate it like a force, target it, and be empowered by it alone. I don’t even know of any Fantasy setting that works this way (there’s usually some god of Awesome that fills this role, not just ‘Good’).

What’s more, it gets into the rest of how the game works. Clerics of a god have to be with in one ‘step’ of their god or they lose their cleric powers. That’s all well and good on the outside, but that means no cleric can ever be wrong or heretical. The second they go too far, their power stops working as proof. No one can really be evil while thinking they’re good because there are things in the world that actively tell them they’re wrong.

In fact, alignment, as presented in the core game, supersedes the gods themselves. See, that restriction on the cleric’s alignment? A god can’t waive that. If, say the god of fire in a setting happens to be Good, then NO ONE who calls upon his power can be Evil, even if the god doesn’t care about good or evil and just happens to be a generally good and altruistic person. Unless they’re true neutral, no god can truly embody and empower all aspects of their portfolio.

4e and the Unaligned alignment changed this a bit: the Raven Queen, the setting’s Goddess of Death is unaligned and fields both shepherds of the honored dead and murderous psychopaths. But it only works if the god is Unaligned (and remember that 4e is once again has alignment as a choice, not a personality marker).

And then we get to those nice archetypes I mentioned up there. In D&D world, there are no rebellious martial arts students of strict masters who go off and create their own style because Chaos is the freedom and rejection of authority and tradition alignment and the second your Monk becomes Chaotic, they can’t gain Monk levels anymore. Similarly, there are no loyal Court Bards who steep themselves in traditional works and doggedly hone their art because Law is the place where tradition and meticulousness live and once a Bard becomes Lawful they cannot advance as a Bard.

Essentially, this means that D&D as a whole with the exception of campaign settings that go out of their way to change this has a very narrow allowance for possible interpretations for these and other archetypes. I would say that this is all well and good for a setting, but not for a general game of Fantasy.

This and a few other forced flavor elements (for example Vancian Spellcasting) have led to the the popular gaming assertion that D&D is generally only good for playing D&D.

While the World of Ere started as a setting I designed for D&D, as I worked to tell better stories in game and in books, I found the highly artificial limits alignment placed on characters and the setting to be too restraining to tell the kind of stories I wanted, especially with the variation in archetypes. Imagine the Bardic College if their traditions and discipline caused them all to stop being able to learn their trade after a certain point.

Of course someone is going to say that there is still some value in using it as a character guide. But at this point, you’re going to run afoul of…

The Descriptors are Incredibly Vague and Not Mutually Exclusive

Okay, so people who advocate for alignment as a roleplaying tool often describe it as a handy way to boil down important character information into a simple label. While I would argue against the idea that where someone stands on the Law/Chaos and Good/Evil axis isn’t all that important, especially considering that the assumption is that you’re playing heroes or at least protagonists to start with, there’s a bigger problem here and it comes from the rules themselves. To wit, let’s look at what the 3e SRD says about each alignment:

 “Good” implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.

“Evil” implies hurting, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some evil deity or master.

“Law” implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include close-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability. Those who consciously promote lawfulness say that only lawful behavior creates a society in which people can depend on each other and make the right decisions in full confidence that others will act as they should.

“Chaos” implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility. Those who promote chaotic behavior say that only unfettered personal freedom allows people to express themselves fully and lets society benefit from the potential that its individuals have within them.

So call me stupid, but can’t you be both respectful of life and oppressive? Can’t you be altruistic while also hurting others? Isn’t that what Robin Hood is all about? Couldn’t respecting the dignity of sentients involve killing other sentients?

And then we get to the Law/Chaos portion and everything goes to hell. Honorable people cannot be reckless in the pursuit of honor. No one trustworthy is adaptable. Of, and freedom isn’t reliable. Actually, nothing in the Law/Chaos section is mutually exclusive. You can be both super Lawful and super Chaotic at the same time… except the rules say you can’t be.

Now stop and think about famous characters and instead of following the words ‘Good, Evil, Law, Chaos’, compare them to the descriptions up there. Think about how many times crime-fighting hero, Batman hung some mook off the side of a building—was he giving a hoot about the dignity of sentient life there, or was he oppressing the criminal element? Would that justify a Paladin murdering him? Because in D&D it might.

As you can see, you can pretty much interpret any character into almost any alignment. The 3e rules actually cop to this by admitting that people aren’t consistent and in 2e, they copped out by sometimes describing characters as having ‘tendencies’ toward an alignment on top of their actual alignment.

My question is… ‘what’s the point?’.

I ask for a description and background from everyone who plays under me as a DM. Nothing big, just a couple of paragraphs. The thing is, even with that little, they tend to tell me a whole lot move about how to motivate and cater to those characters than whether they ‘respect life’ or some other vague pablum or not.

While it may be anecdotal evidence, I’ve also found that in games when I did use alignment, most of those descriptions were taken up by attempts to justify that alignment (and thus allow the player to keep playing a Barbarian, Cleric, Bard or Monk). Without alignment, they were about the character instead.

Putting it all together, there is in theory an interesting setting that can be created from alignment. Some people would say that Planescape is that setting, but I’ve never found it all that interesting. In other settings, particularly those with novels, I’ve found attempts to include it in the novels to be a bit forced.

I fail to see what it stands to add to any setting not designed to handle it, and Ere is certainly not designed for it. Therefore, there’s really no place for it in the game if there’s no place for it in the world.

Now if you want some actually good mechanics for character morality and convictions, well I’m drawing inspiration from HERO System for that. Stay tuned for the Limtations system I’ve developed (with the help of my good friend Fyrasha) based on HERO’s disadvantages. Short story is, they’re things like phobias, vows, etc that penalize you in certain circumstances and if you go through en encounter under those penalties, you get a benny for it.

That’s next week when I discuss Flaws systems in games.

Until then, have a good week!

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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