Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Shades of Grey" - Redefining Alignment

Before I begin, please be aware that all this applies to B/X D&D, and perhaps pre-Supplement OD&D (on which B/X is heavily based).

I've written before that I think the "cosmic throwdown" form of alignment is the best way to represent alignment in D&D...that is, do you stand for civilization or the evil, unknowable, unspeakable elder gods like Cthulhu and his ilk. After more thought, especially regarding the place of religion in a D&D campaign, I'm beginning to re-think that.

The traditional "good-evil" ideas prevalent in most D&D game worlds are...well, too simplistic and "cartoonish" (for lack of better articulation). I mean, you CAN play that way (and you can play Pathfinder or 4E, too...whatever floats your boat), but I don't know if that's as practical or consistent (with regard to the game rules/setting) as it could be.

Recently I've had a chance to play a cleric in an on-line Skype game. I chose to be Neutral and dedicated to a "toad" deity. The reason I chose my neutral alignment is I didn't want to be placed in the role of a "hero" and wanted the option to act in a way that could save my own ass. I thus made a slightly cowardly, slovenly character.

I ended up acting heroically and getting killed.

How the hell did this happen? Well, I'm starting to thing the cleric class, by dint of its design, seems prone to take on a leadership and generally "protagonist" role. Whether blazing a trail through undead, casting light, fighting in melee (they're not a "stand back and shoot" type), the cleric is going to be put in a take-charge position...and that's what happened with my character.

In watching my nephews play D&D, they've each had the opportunity to play clerics, and they too end up treating them as paladins. My buddy Matt often played clerics and when he did he was often proactive, NOT acting as a "support character" but leading his own (fanatic) troops.

I should note these players I talk about all played Lawful characters. My cleric was supposed to be Neutral but ended up acting Lawful in the end (to his detriment).

Anyhoo, talking about clerics is not the point of this post. I'm writing about alignment. Consider this idea:

How about divorcing alignment from gods, deities, and clerics altogether?

What if alignment were to simply describe the personality of a character/NPC/monster ("players may choose the alignments they feel will best fit their characters") rather than as strict doctrine to follow ("alignments give guidelines for characters to live by. The characters will try to follow these guidelines...")?

What if clerics gained their abilities (spells, undead turning) from following the dictates of their religion, not the dictates of their alignment? Aside from making the class more interesting from a role-playing perspective (did you keep the commandments? make the appropriate sacrifices?) is allows alignment to simply be used as expressions of human (or elf or dwarf or whatever nature). Here's what I was thinking:

Lawful = "Heroic"
Neutral = "Selfish"
Chaotic = "Psychotic"

Why call a Lawful character Heroic? Because by definition, that's what a follower of Law is: one willing to put the good of the group before the good of the individual. By the definition of Lawful in the Basic set (which I won't bother to quote here), even those "lone wolf" types of comic book characters (Batman, Wolverine) would be considered Lawful. Respect for life? Check. Keeps their word? Check. Self-sacrifice when necessary? Check. The Lawful character is Heroic.

Why call a Neutral character Selfish? Because the description of the Neutral character is a portrait of self-interest. Someone "most interested in personal survival" is not someone who puts the good of the group ahead of his (or her) individual self, by definition. Someone who only joins the group because it's in their best interest? Selfish. Someone who is not "helpful unless there is some sort of profit in it? Selfish.

But not necessarily evil, per se. Most civilized individuals (human, dwarf, elf, halfling) are going to fall into one of these two alignments. Only the true aberrants are Chaotic.

Why call a Chaotic character Psychotic? Here I will quote a bit. "...the group is not at all important. Chaotics often act on sudden desires and whims. They cannot be trusted and their behaviors are hard to predict."

Any Firefly fans remember the Reavers? This is the Chaotic individual (and a good model for Chaotic humanoids like goblins and orcs). Serial killers; individuals that have no interest in the laws of man or God, only their own gratification and depravity. Some might say a follower of Chaos is all about "personal freedom;" but freedom to do what you want at the expense of others is EVIL. And it is detached from reality (as a part of a society, culture, or world you are a cog in that group and to think your actions are somehow above the law or that you will face no consequences for acting against the ways of the group will generally set you up for a fall).

Possibly more on this later....


  1. Well, I'm starting to thing the cleric class, by dint of its design, seems prone to take on a leadership and generally "protagonist" role.

    The last time I allowed Clerics, I changed the name of the class to "Champion" and that little trick made a lot of things clear. Clerics are not meant to be walking MASH-units or pious wimps. They are Paladins, Knights Templar, and Van Helsing.

    As to Alignment--I don't see any issue with detaching Alignment and Clerics as such. I continue to wrestle with this mechanic. My biggest issue is: if Alignment doesn't do anything mechanically, then why have it? And yet, I keep having it.

  2. Whether or not alignment has to exist AT ALL is a completely different topic...though one I might need to explore!