Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Mysterious fane on the banks of the Sea of Ohkotsk

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Out of Alignment

Poking around on the internet for other things, lately I have (completely by chance) come across a number of discussions on the value of alignment (or lack thereof).

Now, personally I have no problem with the idea of alignment, but there seem to be a lot of people out there who think it's a seriously flawed concept, and most of them seem to be particularly incensed by the AD&D system.  I'll grant that even I find that the binomial alignment system of AD&D sometimes results in some fairly arbitrary alliances and antipathies, and the idea of alignment restrictions for classes and races is a little puzzling in some cases - but that's because I cut my teeth on the old Law-Chaos dichotomy in B/X way back in the day.

Make no mistake: for alignment as written in the rules to make sense, you have to buy into the cosmology of the given setting - you have to accept the idea that there are eternal and absolute forces that are woven into the fabric of the world.

In the case of Law-Chaos, you might imagine a constant tension between the creator forces of Law, the gods who gave form to the world and imbued its peoples with civilization, and the forces of Chaos, who are forever trying to dissolve it all back into the primordial murk. This is also the world of Jack Vance's Dying Earth, where the whole of reality is unraveling into strange and inhuman shapes, and things from outside order are constantly pressing at the fabric of the world, trying to get in and impose their own realities on ours.  Even if they're not directly taking part in this struggle, characters are imbued with a driving spark that determines their allegiance, and how their small part in the struggle will count toward the final score.

In the case of AD&D's binomial system reality is far more complex, with mortal reality being essentially the point of contact between other universes that personify certain essential archetypes.  This reality seems more like our own real world, but with supernatural actors occasionally stepping through the veil and working directly on the course of events. In this type of universe, alignment is more of a measure of personality and inclination than of eternal essence or driving spark, but alignment still plays a powerful part in determining allegiances.

Games in these kinds of settings play out in a world of grand, cosmic struggle between opposing forces, and they lend themselves to moral absolutes.  But what about games that don't invoke his kind of mythos?

The argument over alignment usually comes out when people have experience with particular game settings or campaigns in which these kinds of cosmic struggle images don't seem to make sense - games that revolve around court intrigue, or the struggle between factions in a thieves' guild, or just a gritty "real dark ages" kind of game where the goal is more about simulating what the world would have been like if mythological creatures were real than about living out the myths themselves.

The argument stops entirely when you move away from the traditional fantasy RPGs and into other things like SF games, spy games, even superheroes.  In games like these, moral relativity is almost the point: the struggles are obviously more nuanced and complex than "eternal struggle between Law and Chaos" can possibly reflect.

But is alignment really pointless - even a problem - in these kinds of games?

As it happens, I think not.

It seems to me that the alignments - Law or Chaos, good or evil - are themselves arbitrary, as is the decision to define them in terms of diametric oppositions.  There's nothing that says alignments must work this way.  Alignments are about allegiances in an ongoing struggle: the alignment you choose for your character is the crystal from which all other decisions grow. If moral absolutes like good and evil don't make sense in this role for your game world, choose other rallying points.

The key is to select an "alignment" that:

a) can be distilled into a very small number of key words or phrases that convey its essence
b) can serve as a shorthand to be a starting point for a character's personality, attitude and motivations

Once 2 or more alignments have been detailed, the relationships between them will need to be determined as well.  At the simplest level, you could simply sort them in opposed pairs, as was done in the classic AD&D alignment chart.  But why stop there?  Is it necessary for every alignment to have an antipathetic nemesis?  No!  Why not specify relationships like "friendship" "antipathy" and "neutral"?  And consider this: just because A and B are friends, doesn't mean that they share common antipathy toward C.

Take this example:

Imagine a setting arranged like the warring states era of Japanese history - a small number of powerful clans and a larger number of other clans are constantly at war to secure the imperial throne for themselves.  Characters select one clan as their "alignment" to represent which side they're on, and as shorthand to tell them their relationship to the others.  By choosing this clan, the character's basic reasons for action and personality are known, and the rest of the character's personality can be grown from there.  Some of the other clans will be antipathetic, others will be neutral, some will be friendly.

You could perhaps specify that there are 7 clans to choose from, and arrange them at the points of a 7 pointed star - clans at the opposite points are antipathetic, those adjascent are friendly, all others are neutral.

With the stroke of a pen, a fairly complex political and social reality is created that guides characters' actions and interactions without needing to resort to cosmology.

(note: a set-up very similar to this is used in the game Legend of the Five Rings - they use the conceit of assigning animal totems to each of the clans, and the "essence" of that animal provides guidance as to the common theme among members of the clan, and the clan's relationship with the other clans)

A second example:

Court intrigue in a fantastic Britain at the time of Elizabeth I - the Faerie Queen. Those loyal to the Queen defend the realm from a variety of intrigues set on deposing her for various reasons and installing a sympathetic regime of their own.

In this case, "The Realm" is one alignment, and there are several others in antipathy to it - perhaps "the Commons", "the Spanish", "the Church" and "the Usurper" - but what are the relatonships among them? Some will be neutral, able to work together to undermine the Realm, yet probably also scheming to make sure their favourite is the one to sit on the throne.  In other cases, they will have antipathy among themselves as well as toward the Realm, and will spend as much time trying to destroy each other as anything else.

I would probably use this approach if trying to put together an alignment system for use with a SF game, something like Dune.

A final example, and one that is easy to implement in any fantasy game:

Quite simply - use the elements as alignments.

Replace the whole good/evil style of cosmology with a more essentialist one.  Each character is "allied" to one of the elements, and as such has resonance with them.

The options are multitudinous - one you start thinking about them, you will probably find essential motivating forces that are perfect for your game.

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